[11 June 2013]
New Orleans music in 2013 is perhaps not like music in any other city—though that might be true of Nashville or New York or Austin too. There are a couple of singular musical traditions that are so cleanly associated with New Orleans that they don’t quite live anywhere else with such present vibrancy: funky brass bands, a certain strain of R&B, and a certain kind of jazz.
So We Partyin’ Traditional Style is a record that, perhaps, means something different coming from the contemporary New Orleans trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins than it would coming from someone in, say, Toronto. Ruffins isn’t playing traditional New Orleans jazz in a purely curatorial way—he actually grooves this stuff in bars all over the Crescent City (and elsewhere) before fun-seeking audiences. The cat actually does party traditional style, goofy as that title may seem.
That said, Ruffins’ music isn’t usually this traditional. Normally, his band blends traditional New Orleans jazz in the Louis Armstrong vein with a grab bag of blues, second line parade grooves, and funky stuff that can inch toward to modern jazz but is typically closer to R&B. Here, as the title of the recording indicates, he sticks to repertoire from the ‘20s and ‘30s (“Chinatown”, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”, “All of Me”) and the classic front line of his trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, backed by a rhythm section boasting a banjo.
The band plays this style very well. Tom Fischer’s clarinet is pungent and serpentine, winding all around the melodies with blues joy. Lucien Barbarin on trombone gives everything a brassy bottom. Shannon Powell’s drums sound utterly authentic and fun, punching the mostly two-step rhythms with a swing that would make Baby Dodds happy enough to dance.
And then there’s Ruffins. The album belongs to him—he sings and plays the melodic lead on nearly every tune, loose as a goose and having a great time. As a player, he has buzzing and fun tone—melancholy on a ballad like “Sleepy Time” and a gas to snap along to on “Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers”. But, divorced from Ruffin’s barbecue-soaked (and, let’s be frank, herbally drenched in another sense too) live performance style, this stuff is kind of a dime-a-dozen.
As a singer, this mixed reaction is even more pronounced. I mean, to dislike Ruffin’s personality-rich, even clown-ish singing is really too mean to put in a review. But this stuff is so flagrantly and transparently (but—and joyfully!) torn from the Louis Armstrong bag that it verges on embarrassing. Now, when Ruffins uses this approach on material that is not traditional 1920s jazz (here that would really only be his own “Treme Second Line”), it doesn’t feel like pure mimicry. But on Armstrong material like “Jeepers Creepers” or “Chinatown, My Chinatown”, all the growls and wordless “Zooo-dooo-deet”s are hard to hear as much more than somewhat artless versions of Pops’ genius. Armstrong, for all his growl and laughter, sat on a peerless instrument that could be as subtle as it was cornball. When he was shticking it up, it was a way of plunging a pin in an overinflated balloon.
This set of a dozen tunes is after much less than the Hot Five or Hot Seven sought. Ruffins just wants to get you laughing and dancing, weeping a bit into your beer once in a while, but mainly just having a good time. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of basic pleasure here, some tasty solos, and enough to move your feet to. Ruffins delivers all the traditional New Orleans licks you could want on his horn, though nothing like the thrill of hearing Armstrong’s clarion call, and you can hear his grin through his tone—though it’s pretty to recommend, say, the long held note at the end of the first vocal chorus “Marie”.
It all ends with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, it must be noted. And I guess if you are going to purchase We Partyin’ Traditional Style then you’re going to want this tune. I don’t quite know how to judge this sort of thing. It is fun. Like cotton candy. Like a frozen Milky Way. Like a tiara worn to a party.
What the heck, have a good time. Or, much better yet, go to see Kermit Ruffins in a bar in New Orleans when he’s playing a wide range of music, some of which is passably related to the current city’s groove. The man is a gas. This record, though, is more like gassy.