By Don Heckman
When Rick Braun asked me to write the liner notes for his new album a few months ago, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew he was a fine jazz trumpeter with solid mainstream skills, despite the fact that he was best known as a high visibility performer in the smooth jazz genre. But the new album was taking him into the unexpected territory clearly defined in the album title, Rick Braun Sings With Strings.
“Okay, so what’s this,” I thought. “Rick Braun is traveling down Chet Baker Lane? Hmmm.”
But when I heard the first few tracks, none of which had any particular Baker references, I began to broaden my perspective. And I recalled how many of the trumpet players – from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Jack Sheldon and beyond – had found common musical ground between their instrumental and their vocal musical interests.
Listening to more of the tracks, with their broad range of tunes, reaching from American Songbook classics to some fascinating French song entries chosen by album producer/arranger/pianist Phillipe Saisse, I was impressed. In part by the lush musical production and the appealing choice of material. But equally so by Braun’s warm, engaging singing.
To make a long story short – I was happy to write the liners.
And when I saw that Braun was performing selections from the album with a rhythm section and a string quartet at Vitello’s, I knew I had to hear the songs in a live setting.
Interestingly, the smaller ensemble, while retaining the rich harmonic coloration of the album tracks, also created an attractively intimate musical environment. And Braun made the most of it.
Clearly impacted by the strong, balladry style founded by Frank Sinatra, he sang tunes such as “The Good Life” and “It’s Love” with solid musical assertiveness. On others – “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” “Once Upon A Summer Time” and “I Thought About You” among them — he switched gears into more laid-back, story telling style. Between songs, his amiable, outgoing conversational manner added another attractive element to the evening.
Add to that Braun’s darkly lyrical flugel horn playing, the rich textures of a string quartet and the briskly swinging support of Saisse on piano, guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Reggie Hamilton and drummer Joe LaBarbera.
And the result was a rare and memorable display of what can happen when a first rate recording is good enough to go live.
Photo by Bob Barry.