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The heart and soul of New Orleans

Reviewed September 2005

Putumayo presents Kermit Ruffins
Putumayo presents Kermit Ruffins
By Kermit Ruffins

Putumayo World Music: 2005

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

It's damned weird walking around supermarkets and shopping centers these days and hearing Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," Mingus' "Better Git Hit in Your Soul" or Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" piped in while your looking for your fish sticks and Liebfraumilch. The output of such artists was once marginalized in a society that associated such startling creativity with a conspiracy to convert country clubs into communes. Now, it's shopping music and museum pieces. An anthology album came out a while back called "Cool Jazz: The Cocktail Hour," apparently attempting to market some fairly hardcore jazz to the smooth schmooze listeners. The artists included Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders. Figure that. As Wynton Marsalis has astutely noted, music is not necessarily chronological in the way it evolves.

A few days ago, I got hung up at Starbucks listening to Charles Earland swing out on "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday," and just as I'm getting ready to walk out, James Moody comes on blowing tenor, digging deep on "I'm in the Mood for Love," the classic solo that King Pleasure put to words ... "Oh, pretty baby, you make feel so good ...", with apparently absolutely no effect on the other customers, with their noses buried in the Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart's Living and the like.

With that tune fresh in my head, I later went back to my collection and dig up Kermit Ruffins' "Hold on Tight," a 1996 Justice Records release on which the trumpeter-singer does his own vocal version of "Moody's Mood for Love."

His take on it highlights that, contrary to the prevailing view, Ruffins is not strictly a revivalist, another in a decades-long line of musicians who have mined the music of New Orleans and its favorite son, Louis Armstrong. His repertoire goes beyond the brass band idiom and the Louis Armstrong songbook, though his mastery of those entwined genres is undeniable. This is evidenced by his latest release, which is put out by Putumayo World Music and titled "Putumayo presents Kermit Ruffins." It's an anthology of selections recorded between 1992 and 2002 on Justice discs that are now out of print and on Basin Street Records with whom he is now aligned.

The Putumayo collection, in keeping with the label's mission of presenting feel-good music indigenous to various corners of the world, almost exclusively focuses on the traditional, mainstream material – there aren't any jive reefer songs, such as the hilarious "Light Up," on which Kermit sings and performs the kazoo, or his funky ventures such as "Smokin,'" both of which were found on "Hold on Tight."

The Putumayo CD is a solid primer on Ruffins' exuberant blowing and vocalizing. He's got an upper-register vibrato as fat as ham hocks and a hickory-smoked voice, both of which invite inevitable comparisons to Armstrong. Which is fine, because Ruffins makes no apologies about his unabashed adulation for Pops and he succeeds in sounding much closer to Armstrong than some of his fellow New Orleans' trumpeters, such as Leroy Jones and Ruffins' former colleague with the Rebirth Brass Band, Derek Shezbie, who also do material by the giant.

Ruffins' dedication to Louis is most evident on the Putumayo disc on the Armstrong favorites "Ain't Misbehavin," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Monday in Night in New Orleans" (which is a customized version of Louis' "Christmas Time in New Orleans") and "Bye and Bye," in which Kermit incorporates the One A-Chord Gospel Singers.

In keeping with the Big Easy esprit de corps, Ruffins' supporting cast is populated by fellow New Orleans musicians. Most notably on the New Orleans traditional tunes, "Monday Night in New Orleans," "When My Dream Boat Comes Home" and his original "Kermit's Second Line," Ruffins goes for a real old-timey feel with the help of another New Orleans legend, the late Danny Barker, on banjo. It was Barker who almost single-handedly rekindled an enthusiasm among New Orleans youths for the traditional brass-band ragtime that proved to be the foundation, with the adornments of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, for the swing movement of the 1930s and '40s. While the music's popularity waned among later black generations, who often viewed it as square and toadying to whites, white musicians latched onto it and capitalized on it with the label Dixieland, though their labors often lacked the vitality of the originators.

With Barker's instruction and inspiration, a new generation of musicians grasped the richness of the legacy and embraced the concept, led by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, of which Ruffins was an original member, and a handful of other bands. They brought the music roaring back, invigorated by the Afro-Caribbean cross-rhythms and the funky backbeats for which New Orleans is legendary. So this new brand of brass band is both an entrenchment and an innovation.

Ruffins' ebullient personality made him the natural frontman for the Rebirth, of which the phenomenal tuba player Phillip Frazier and bass drum beater, Keith Frazier, remain the leaders. Propelled by Ruffins' soaring trumpet solos and infectious vocals, the Rebirth graduated from local phenomenon to international renown.

Given his success out in front of the band, it was logical that Ruffins would step out on his own. Yet, he has remained true to his sources, hence his incorporation of Barker and other Crescent City cohorts. Among others joining Barker on the Putumayo cuts are Lucien Barbarin, who like Barker is a descendent of the legendary Armstrong associate, drummer Paul Barbarin, the composer of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue." Drummer Shannon Powell, one of the most sought-out drummers in the Crescent City, and a regular with Harry Connick Jr., appears on six tunes. Also in the mix is pianist Ellis Marsalis, the dad of the famed Marsalis boys, including trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who produced the "Hold on Tight" session represented on this disc by Kermit's boppish version of "After You're Gone" and his own light-hearted ballad, "Goodnight."

And then there's Kermit's old buddy, Tuba Fats, (Anthony Lacen), with whom Ruffins would often team up with in working Jackson Square for tips from the tourists, work that was formative in Ruffins' development. Tuba Fats supplies the booming bass line so necessary to "Kermit's Second Line," a joyous exposition of the kind of music that is played on the celebratory return of the New Orleans funeral procession, with Ruffins providing the de rigueur high-note fireworks.

From beginning to end, the Putumayo collection sparkles and swings, and gives the listener a solid taste of what Kermit Ruffins is about, concluding appropriately with the album's only live cut, "Do the Fat Tuesday," recorded at Tipitina's in the Garden District. The vocals commemorate the Fat Tuesday dance in celebration of Mardi Gras. A blues with a funky beat, Kermit projects the loose, fun-loving vibe that make him an inveterate crowd-pleaser.

I heard Ruffins with the Rebirth a number of years back at the San Diego Street Scene – the music got hotter and hotter, Kermit was blowing louder and higher and I thought, that's cool, and then he goes for another chorus, climbing the ladder and I'm thinking, he can't take it any farther than that, it's impossible, but he did: higher, louder, sassier, saucier; really struttin' with that barbecue. You felt like the top of your head was going to fly off.

That's why he's one of the world's great macarizers. With Kermit, it's not about styling, it's about swinging. So much of what is called jazz has gone the way of classical music, mostly copying what all the long dead, genius cats have left us, or worse, what some record company has come up with as background tracks for inspecting landscaping blueprints. But as Amiri Baraka said when he was still Leroi Jones, "It is better to have loved and lost, than to have put linoleum in your living room."

And that's the essence of Ruffins' music – facile discussions of style are senseless because it's everything about expression and exuberance and feeling. True, he is ever ready to acknowledge his debt to his predecessors, but that's not the end game, that's the launching pad. When Kermit shows up, whether it's Donna's on Rampart, the nearest jazz festival or on Emeril's as the guest band, the party's starting. When he puts the horn to his lips and tilts that bell toward the heavens, pandemonium breaks loose and the crowd goes crazy. He's the Mac Man – the grand macarizer.

Review by Michael J. Williams. Michael is a San Diego-based writer and editor.

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