Kermit Ruffins first emerged as a youngster in the foundation of the Rebirth Brass Band, quite a time ago now, reviving civic pride and a music of considerable historical interest. Death was going to have all the old men eventually, but there was no reason to let the grim reaper shut down good music or the best tunes.
There was also no reason to put that music in a museum, or treat it as a museum piece. It was one forebear of the R&B and soul music that was current at the time, so why not remarry the old thing to what would wake it up for some morning exercise?
As charity organisers and AIDS campaigners have learned, a certain mind-set has been cultivated to ensure prompt turnover between one season’s mode or craze and another’s. The problems of Africa go on and on and on, unrecognised because while many people attend promptly in word or deed to the latest crisis the more enduring ones get ignored and allowed to endure. You can learn a lot from what happens to music. Whatever happened to Rebirth in the years since it lost its latest new thing status, the name was right. Rebirths matter in a time tyrannised over by sheer novelty.
Ruffins is now a sort of Nat Gonella—the prime English follower of Louis Armstrong, an important incidental apostle of jazz values, and at least as good a trumpeter as young Ruffins. Neither of them could be called an all-out imitator, though to consider them as sorts of imitators is fruitful. Gonella took up Armstrong’s style of the earlier 1930s, which was current at the time. Ruffins, when he does try to sound like Armstrong, goes in for the late mannerisms. There is the occasional re-re-repetition of the coda, Da-ra-dah-da-ra-pah-oh-not-again!, which patronises Armstrong obscenely, and helps people be sick of him before they’ve had a proper chance to hear him. I wish laryngitis on anybody crass dumm stupid enough to re-do that yet again.
Ruffins has produced something like a dozen albums, for the Basin Street recording company and for Justice Records. Both catalogues are drawn from in Putumayo Presents Kermit Ruffins, an issue of music from 1992-2002. On the opening “Ain’t Misbehavin” (1999), the vocal is very well accompanied by Corey Henry, who also takes a funky trombone solo. On “Monday Night in New Orleans” (1992), Doreen Ketchens played good clarinet and Danny Barker was still around to play banjo. Barker was already a veteran by the time Armstrong had developed the clichés and mannerisms and reference points presented here. The most striking negative thing is his tendency to go into the same heavy vibrato and huge brassy tone which can be heard in recordings of Armstrong’s later years, where the trumpeter played more soaring phrases. Ruffins would probably be a better trumpeter if he integrated that sort of register into his own playing, rather than lapsing into instrumental mimicry.
Another curiosity of Armstrong’s later years, when the years and hard work had taken their toll on lip and lungs yet to the last he still wanted to tour and play, was the status of nurse which tended to fall to the trombonist in his band. For a long time it was Trummy Young (who sacrificed a lot, including much of his reputation), and then especially Tyree Glenn. They played rough and big (and at times, by their own standards, primitively) and filled in a lot when Armstrong was relatively frail in merely physical terms. There is a tendency towards that sort of balance in band performances here. Joe Muranyi was generally regarded as the worst clarinetist ever in Armstrong’s long-standing small group format, but when later he astonished people by being an excellent soprano saxophone player, he could also tell people that he’d played so bad with Louis because that was how management had told him to play. It’s refreshing to hear the mostly spontaneous and respectable music-making here, given that in the model of 1960s Louis Armstrong small groups Ruffins has already a tourism-polluted sort of genre.
“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” makes clear the resolve to feature Mr. Ruffins as singer, and sometime trumpeter (rather than the other way round). There’s too much singing and too little trumpet, and while Michael White’s clarinet may have been present during the recording of this track nobody seems to have been playing it.
“Leshianne” is the odd track out, in featuring Ruffins as trumpet soloist with rhythm trio. He could be mistaken for a trumpeter who came up in the 1940s, and picked up on the muted trumpet-with-rhythm thing of Harry Edison and Jonah Jones. He has never developed the magnificence of open tone with which each of these masters filled the mute, and if he plays lines a bit like Edison - very many people did - he’s yet another whose playing would be better if he could get rid of the repressive hankering to sound like Miles Davis.
The pianist on the closer, “Do the Fat Tuesday”, is Emil Vinette. He sounds like a very competent modernist. So in fact does Ruffins on this one, his horn work not so far from that of a Jazz Messenger (another part of the mix which went into the Rebirth band). Quite possibly there are better selections of Ruffins on some of the CDs from which this one’s tracks were drawn. This isn’t anybody’s recording of the year, but it’s very good that this music is present to be recorded.