The famous poet James Russell Lowell wrote in his most enduring poem: "What is so rare as a day in June, then if ever, come perfect days." Well some nights in June can also approach perfection. One such energized evening was the much anticipated Las Vegas return by R & R (Richard Elliot and Rick Braun), two of the most expressive and explosive stage presences that Contemporary Jazz can offer. The celebrated duo made a visit to The Access Showroom located inside the beautiful Aliante Station Hotel and Casino for an evening of predominately high energy horn intensive music.
The program began with two well-received selections from Braun and Elliot’s collaborative album of a couple years ago which was entitled R & R. The blistering "Q It Up," was nicely followed by the funky oriented groove of "Down and Dirty" which got the performance off to a whirlwind start. Not wasting a moment’s time, Elliot and Braun traded hot leads on their instruments; Elliot’s trademark Zebra stripped tenor saxophone and Braun’s lovely pearl coated golden/brass trumpet. During "Down and Dirty" Elliot’s face turned a beet red, as he coaxed every ounce of jungle cat roar from his tenor, teaming with Braun’s strong trumpet bleats to create transcendent goose-bump inducing music.
The customary Braun/Elliot expert sidemen accompanied the artists during this night of spectacular music. Houston, Texas native Dwight Sills deftly played retro/wah-wah laden rhythm chords as well as searing leads on guitar while Nate Phillips funkily thumb-slapped his bass guitar. Former Yellowjackets drum mainstay Ricky Lawson propelled the beat masterfully throughout the night, and the keyboards were in the extremely capable hands of Ron Reinhardt. After the band was introduced to the crowd, Rick Braun paid tribute to one of his musical idols, Herb Alpert, as the group performed "Tijuana Dance?" from Braun’s recent standout CD All It Takes. Utilizing his shiny gold flugelhorn on this pop-inflected catchy rhythm hit, Braun was in complete control of the adoring crowd, dueling with Elliot as the group delivered the infectious head-bobbing groove.
Braun temporarily left the stage, as Richard Elliot reached for his EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). A lovely rendition of Marvin Gaye’s "Inner City Blues (make me wanna holler)" ensued. The song’s intro began slow and shimmery accompanied by a laser light spectacle that slickly shot a down-pouring of digital raindrops across the stage’s front wall. Elliot switched back to his tenor sax mid-song, as the tempo and intensity built solidified by Lawson’s sizzling cymbals. The soulful song was also a major jazz hit for saxophone icon Grover Washington, Jr. Elliot, who had participated on the "Groovin’ for Grover" project, gave an affectionate treatment.
"My Funny Valentine," a show tune from the 1930’s written by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hart followed and contained a rare and deeply discerning vocal by Rick Braun. The song easily qualifies as a Jazz Standard; having been recorded by Chet Baker (with Gerry Mulligan), Frank Sinatra, and Miles Davis to name just a handful. Braun played his muted trumpet sincerely from the heart, earning the audience’s respectful appreciation.
Quite possibly, the high point of the show came when Richard Elliot performed his rendition of Percy Sledge’s immortal song "When a Man Loves a Woman." The sheer lushness of the melody combined with Elliot’s depth and power on his tenor sax covered the crowd in a warm blanket of seductive sound. He was simply magnificent, powerfully holding notes with perfect pitch, proving once again to be a richly passionate professional.
"Green Tomatoes," from Braun’s Esperanto CD was an up-tempo funk-fest, with every member of the band exhibiting joyful enjoyment as they treated the audience to a stirring demonstration of stellar ensemble musicianship. "Keep on Truckin’," an R & B classic written by Eddie Kendrick provided the group further reason to parade merrily around the stage and exhibit loosely choreographed antics. Elliot operated his EWI in funkmeister-vocoder mode to scat impressively, which prompted a vocal scat battle versus Braun.
The perpetual Braun concert staple, Hugh Masekala’s "Grazing in the Grass" never fails to stimulate the audience and keep everyone standing in approval. Reinhardt’s keyboards were visibly notable, as he cruised along in high gear alongside the stunning twosome of Braun on trumpet and Elliot on tenor.
The tremendous encore consisted of a one-two punch pulled from Richard Elliot’s recent retro-soul laden blockbuster CD Rock Steady. The first one, Aretha Franklin’s soul classic "Rock Steady," moved and grooved non-stop in a dynamic display communicated by each and every member of the musical troupe. The finale was a wonderful extended take on the Curtis Mayfield masterpiece "Move on Up." Both of the encore songs strongly confirmed my credence of their strength as awesome options for a live stretched-out performance. But then again, every song that these musical heavyweights choose to include on their set list is met with near-unanimous support.
Rick Braun and Richard Elliot go together like peanut butter and jelly. Two of contemporary jazz’s premier practitioners of their craft, both are splendid by themselves. But when teamed up, they harmonize magnificently, and provide an extra-special presentation. Their high voltage performances are a thing of true beauty, and a precious joy to behold. I foresee their collaborations continuing to provide a great source of pleasure for these two inspiring artists, as well as their enthusiastic fans for many years to come.