In case you haven’t heard of Michael Ruff, you may have heard of some of the artists he has worked with over the years. Michael has played keyboards for the likes of Chaka Khan, Vonda Shepard and Brenda Russell. His beautiful ballad, “Cry On My Shoulder”, was recorded by Bonnie Raitt. He has also penned songs for the likes of Huey Lewis, Bebe Winans, David Sanborn, the Doobie Brothers and Natalie Cole.
This could be my favorite Michael Ruff album, which is saying a lot, since he has such an astonishing body of work. But then, I must confess, I am partial to this one because it’s just Michael at the keyboards without a band – no disrespect to his band, but I’m a big fan of solo piano. And the keyboard he plays, apart from the Hammond organ, is a piano that once belonged to Art and me. It’s a long story, but I’ll make it short and sweet: This piano, a Yamaha grand, was in our home for a long time. But every time I looked at it I felt guilty. I play okay for someone trying to accompany herself, but this is a piano that cries out for virtuosity. So a time came when we felt the piano needed a new home, and miraculously, it found its new home in Hawaii, which is where Michael lives. The first time I listened to this album, I knew we had made the right decision – or maybe, God made that decision for us.
First of all, I do not recommend listening to this album while you’re driving. It will command your attention from start to finish. So if you start listening while you’re driving, I’m afraid it will finish you! (Okay, I know, I’ll stop). The album works as a performance. And it’s a very intimate performance. You will feel you are in his living room, and that he is playing just for you.
It’s hard to choose favorites because each piece is integral to the whole experience. But the title and first song of the album is powerful, starting out child-like, deceptively simple and building to an almost anthemic feel by the end of the song. But as with the rest of this album, the performance is nuanced and restrained. He makes it sound easy. (Trust me, it ‘aint!). The second song on the album, “When It’s Cold Outside” is a warm, tender love song with jazz overtones, perfect for cuddling by a fireplace on a blustery evening.
Most of the songs are original, but there are some covers. The third cut, written by Rob Mehl, “Poet’s Son”, is a touching tribute to a man whose work is inspired by the smile on his wife’s face. It is beautiful, haunting, and sweet, but somehow not syrupy. Michael’s voice has matured over the years, along with his playing and his writing, and it comes across on this album as a soulful cross between Stevie Wonder and James Taylor, if you can imagine that.
For humor, listen to “The Way A Woman Works”. It is playful and wise, and even if you are the kind of person who never pays attention to lyrics, you will be richly rewarded by the feather-light touch on the keys and the steady, gospel rhythm. (No drums required!). Also on the lighter side, “The Time is Right” has a New Orleans boogie-woogie feel reminiscent of Dr. John.
There is a cover of “God Bless The Child” which is unmistakably unique, yet keeps the spirit of the original Billie Holiday tune intact.
Finally, on “Stella By Starlight”, the last cut on the album, Michael stretches out (as they say in jazz parlance), which is a joy to hear. Listen for the soulful Hammond weaving throughout, playing leapfrog with the piano.
Michael has spent a lot of time in church, and his deepening faith informs every aspect of his performance but just as he keeps a light touch in his playing, so too with this.
This album is great for anyone who loves piano music, gospel or jazz. Love Never Fades was recorded in 2005, but as the title suggests, it is timeless. Don’t forget to visit Michael’s site at michaelruff.com