Most music fans know that the jazz capital of the world is no longer New Orleans. New York is the contemporary Mecca for jazz, with more clubs and more great musicians than any fan could hope to check out in a weekend or a week or even a month.
Sure, New Orleans was one of the music’s critical birthplaces. Congo Square, where slaves were allowed to meet and perform African rituals under French rule and, later, where the stew of blues and jazz may have been incubated, is in The Crescent City. New Orleans was the hometown to Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and “Jellyroll” Morton. The action in straight “jazz” is elsewhere, these days, though no matter how many Marsalises you might run into on Canal Street.
When I travel to New Orleans, as I did over the Halloween weekend of 2010, it’s mainly for food, history, and other kinds of music. Except that this year surprised me.
In just three nights out on the town, I found myself newly engaged with the “jazz” culture of New Orleans as it is expressed in 2010. New jazz is brewing here—jazz with one foot in the past and another in the present.
After I landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport, I was picked up by three close friends with whom I was planning to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Also, there would be some eating and music. The guys were huge fan’s of David Simon’s HBO show Treme, and they compiled a mix of New Orleans music based partly on the musicians featured on the show. We were grooving to Allen Toussaint and Dr. John before we laid eyes on the Superdome.
Of course, I love the great New Orleans jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s: the Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Bechet’s hypnotic flights on soprano sax, Morton and his Red Hot Peppers putting the “Latin tinge” into their pulse. Just as much, I love the parade grooves that percolate beneath classic New Orleans brass bands. I love the New Orleans’ piano tradition, stretching from Morton to Professor Longhair to Fats Domino and onward, and I love the rock and R&B that channeled that rumba-boogie stamp—from The Funky Meters and the Neville Brothers to The subdudes and elements of The Band. I’ve even been known to groove to Boozoo Chavis when the zydeco hits me.
We were bouncing in the seats of the rental car, zeroing in on our hotel, moving our asses to a clavé groove that never seemed to let up. Jazz was the furthest thing from my mind, until I got to thinking about one of my very favorite jazz records of 2009, Allen Toussaints’s The Bright Mississippi. Toussaint, of course, is not really considered a jazz musician, but he sure made a brilliant jazz record, boiling down some classic tunes such as “West End Blues” and giving them an unaffected directness that jazz too often misses.
I mean, wasn’t I a jazz writer who was constantly insisting that jazz was more than a 4/4 walking bass line and a string of bebop solos?
Maybe, without going to a jazz club, I was going to hear some jazz this weekend, anyway.
Kermit Ruffins, Channeling the Past and Winking at the Present
On our first night in town, we headed to Vaughan’s Lounge, a ramshackle roadhouse in the Bywater where Thursday nights belong to N’Awlins fixture Kermit Ruffins. Our cab rolled up to the doors at 11pm, and Kermit was already doing his thing, singing and playing the trumpet in front of a trio he calls his “BBQ Swingers”. A mere ten bucks got each of us in the door, from which we wiggled our way up to the bar area. I ordered an Abita S.O.S. (“Save Our Shore”), a bitter 22 oz. Pilsner put out in response to the BP oil spill, then found my way close the stage.
Ruffins is N’Awlins through and through: born and raised in the Ninth Ward, the founder of the Rebirth Brass Band, and known to cook barbeque that he shares with bartenders and patrons at each gig. Mostly, he wears his main inspiration on his sleeve. He plays with the bright tone and broad strokes of Louis Armstrong, and he sings with an easygoing approximation of the master’s style. It’s not an Armstrong imitation he does, but rather a breezy, imprecise gloss on Pops’ manner and repertoire.
That said, it’s easy to dismiss Ruffins as a serious jazz player. First, his style is the furthest thing from “serious”. He’s loose and easy on stage, joking about taking a “reefer break” and allowing fans (particularly the ladies) to join him at the microphone. Second, his repertoire is mostly very traditional and staid—New Orleans standards and second line struts, or originals that stay pretty well within that territory. Third, his playing can be sloppy and unadventurous. He flubs notes, and he always plays the most obvious intervals.
In short, Ruffins is a pedestrian jazz musician. However, he’s a great entertainer and, in the larger sense, a heck of a musician. The magic in what Ruffins does is in his rhythm. As a singer or a player, he has a highly flexible sense of time—lagging way behind at some times and nailing the beat dead-on at others. It’s Armstrong-ish, to be sure, but it’s set against an accompaniment that Louis never could have had.
Ruffins’ band is not just plunking away in the old-fashioned New Orleans style, but providing reasonably modern accompaniment—hipper chords and a dynamic modern groove. They still use the funky Crescent City parade groove, but the feel is sleek or rocking rather than hokey. A good example is “If You Want Me to Stay”, a signature tune for Ruffins. The groove is loose and multi-directional, and the chord changes under the melody are straight from Freddie Hubbard’s tune “Red Clay”, circling around with a keen modern sound while Ruffins jams on top of them. His usual phrasing is stretched out as he plays, liberated by a sound that comes from outside New Orleans but absorbs just enough of that groove, and the audience digs it.
After a set of Ruffins’ canny mixture of tradition and modernism, it becomes clear that his offhand style is just part of his profile. Ruffins uses a big dash of New Orleans hokum in his entertainment, but he’s also dragging the schtick of his native city into a modern realm. It works.
Trombone Shorty: Brass Rock
On Saturday night we were off to Tipitina’s, the classic club at the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas Streets, uptown. Tip’s is a modern room with a great sound system, a roomy balcony, a recording studio, and an extensive education agenda. At night, however, it’s still home to plenty of sweaty funk.
We came to see Trombone Shorty, the alias of 24 year-old Troy Andrews, who grew up in the Tremé and started playing in brass bands before he reach all the positions on his trombone. The opening act was the hilariously-named Bonerama, a group featuring three trombones in front of a rock rhythm section. That was the formula for the night: brass plus rock.
Bonerama doesn’t sound like a New Orleans band, although they are. The Bonerama rhythm section was less likely to play a grooving strut than a heavy backbeat, and the trombone harmonies that define the band’s sound were less reminiscent of a second line brass band than of Basie or Ellington. The arrangements were in the service of pop music, however, rather than what we typically think of as “jazz”—hip horn voicings, for example, pulsing underneath Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. The (excuse me, uh…) ‘boners work well as front men, singing well in a modern rock style and moving around the stage freely with their instruments. The truth is, as dorky as the trombone players may have been in your high school marching band, it’s a pretty cool instrument to see in front of a rock band, theatrically jabbing the edge of stage.
Infinitely cooler than Bonerama, however, was Trombone Shorty. Troy Andrews’ live set-up is almost the same: three horns (his trombone or trumpet, plus tenor and baritone saxophone), rock guitar, popping electric bass, drums and percussion. The Shorty sound is more of a revelation. At its best, the band features percussive horn attacks that ride, clarion-like, on top of a funk-rock groove that reminds you of George Clinton’s Funkadelic.
The opener on Trombone Shorty’s latest disc (Backatown on Verve Forecast) is called “Hurricane Season”, and the gravity and power of that title was easy to appreciate after a long day of pouring cement and building walls in the Ninth Ward. When the band broke into the repetitive horn line of “Hurricane”, the Tipitina’s crowd went utterly and gloriously berserk, joining the band in screaming “Heeeay!” after certain particularly ripping runs. Clearly, part of the fuel for this gut-level involvement is the crunching guitar drive (courtesy of Pete Murano) that works as an independent line in the music. “Hurricane Season” is equal parts funk, rock, New Orleans brass band groove, and precision-driven jazz big band.
Andrews solos not only on trombone but also on trumpet, where he is equally adept and exciting. Shorty is a finer horn technician than Ruffins, but a certain New Orleans aesthetic of fun-over-sophistication is still clear. Still, Trombone Shorty is a brilliantly precise ensemble when it comes to stabbing out the groove in brass. The horn syncopations, for example, that underpin the Allen Toussaint tune “On Your Way Down” are sharp and clean. “Suburbia” is built on stabbing repeated notes that sound like machine gun fire over an acid-rock thump. “Where Y’at” is the snazzy theme song you want following you as enter a room. Yum.
Andrews and Ruffins also share a flair for vocals. Trombone Shorty is mostly an instrumental band, but Andrews possesses a feel for both soul crooning and jazz singing. On “Your Way Down”, he is smooth and cool, with background singers making the band sound slick enough for radio play. Later in the set, Andrews picks up his trumpet and sings a perfectly Satchmo-rific version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, with Murano’s fuzz-tone suddenly transmuted into the bell-tones of jazz guitar. The Shorty take on Armstrong does less to channel the master’s personality, but it reminds us again that the core of all this music is rhythm—the syncopations of a city and a culture where so many things collide.
Give New Orleans Its Due, Again
Ultimately, this music—the music of New Orleans in the new century, revisiting its rich tradition but not trapped inside it—deserves a clearer place among today’s vital, progressive jazz.
First, my weekend in New Orleans was rich with good improvising. Ruffins is sloppy and retro at times, hardly cracking a bebop run, much less playing with fresh harmonic invention. Still, there is a fresh abandon in his playing that meshes ingeniously with his modern backing trio. When he’s not merely schticking it up, Ruffins plays with a slashing fun that is muted in too much of today’s trumpet standard-bearers. Troy Andrews plays with more high-wire virtuosity, but his playing—on brass instruments—seems informed by the rock aesthetic of getting right to the point. Like Miles Davis, he’s a boxer with his horn, jabbing and dancing, weaving and striking clean and fast.
Second, the new New Orleans music is a glorious cross-pollination. Ruffins drags the parade groove into the Armstrong legacy (a combination, oddly, not all that common over the decades) but then infuses it with enough Freddie Hubbard-esque modern jazz that the whole enterprise goes well beyond Preservation Hall tourism. Trombone Shorty is managing to fuse elbows-flying rock with George Clinton and neo-soul and Allen Toussaint and second-line bands and Count Basie. With a side of Armstrong because, damn, the cat is a trumpet player from New Orleans, right?
Wow, this music is great live in a club. Check out Treme, no question—it is coming back for a second season on HBO and it’s likely only to get better. Better: visit America’s most unique city and get out to hear the music.
Oh, and eat some food. It ain’t bad, either.
// Notes from the Road
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