One of the great benefits of what appears to be a music renaissance in New Orleans has been the influx of fresh young trumpeting talent. Grammy-nominated Nicholas Payton, only in his mid-20s, has made a huge national impact while continuing to play locally whenever he can, while 21-year-old phenom Irvin Mayfiend, who also plays in Los Hombres Calientes, is a rising star. But the renaissance also has its roots in the resurging brass band scene, and one of the best recent products of that seen is Kermit Ruffins, who along with the Barbecue Swingers, gigs all over town.
Ruffins, an alumnus of the equally improved ReBirth Brass Band, has developed an interesting rivalry with James Andrews in that both trace their musical influences directly to Louis Armstrong — both in playing and singing. (Andrews, in fact, calls himself and his recent CD “Satchmo of the Ghetto.”) Throw in 21-year-old phenom Irvin Mayfield, and New Orleans doesn’t lack young trumpeters. But Ruffins, with his laid-back, sometimes offbeat delivery and crystal-clear playing, is my personal favorite.
On Swing This! , his follow-up to last year’s excellent live album, Ruffins tackles standards and classics while showing a deft touch on his originals. While it’s also standard to say that you have to hear a musician live to appreciate him — and it’s certainly true in this case — there is an undeniable joy and mischief heard on Ruffins’ work that makes him so attractive. Whether on the trumpet or when singing, Ruffins’ rough edges mask a strong sense of musicianship honed during his years with ReBirth.
You can hear it on traditionals such as “Bogalusa Strut” or classics such as Clarence Williams’ “Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” or Cannonball Adderley’s “Things Are Getting Better,” in which Ruffins tosses in a snippet from George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first of a couple of times — just for fun. Ruffins knows exactly when to lay back and hit his notes right on time, and the result is pure joy. Speaking of fun, Ruffins obviously shares Satchmo’s passion for the lovely herb — Armstrong was once rumored to leave the Big Easy for the Big Apple because the cops were going to bust him on possession charges. That love comes through on “Hide the Reefer,” laying the growly vocals on thick with a scat dash for good measure.
No swing trumpeter would be any good without a solid backup band, and the Barbecue Swingers deliver, particularly tenor saxman Roderick Paulin and pianist Emile Vinette. This ain’t retro fever; it’s just red-hot jazz with a solid ear for the past.
Basin Street Records, 4151 Canal St., New Orleans, LA 70119