After two decades, the New Orleans trumpeter finally figures out how to bring his live energy into a studio setting. The result is one of the best jazz releases of the year to date.
The market for contemporary New Orleans music has been booming in recent years and the two artists leading the charge, Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins, have only recently taken different paths away from the Second Line. Shorty, otherwise known as Troy Andrews, followed up his 2010 coming out party, Backatown, with the decidedly more polished and less interesting pseudo duets set, 2011's For True. On one hand, it was hard to blame Andrews for striking while the iron was hot (2011 might have been the peak of the NOLA boom), but on the other … did he really need to get Kid Rock to sing a song for a release that was supposed to cross him over into the mainstream for good? The move alienated longtime Trombone Shorty fans and didn't do much by way of bringing in new ones, either.
Ruffins, meanwhile, didn't seem to concern himself with the possibility of widespread popularity. Sure, he (along with Andrews) appeared in David Simon's HBO-housed love letter to the Crescent City, Treme, as himself, and yeah, the trumpeter increased his national touring habits as his notoriety continued to grow and grow, but not once did it ever feel like the Barbecue Swinger was straying too far from his roots for comfort. Or, in other words, unlike his NOLA peer, Ruffins wasn't calling up Nickelback's Chad Kroeger to sing a hook on his next album, despite the possibilities of exposure such a move may have brought.
These days, things are a little different. While not irrelevant by any stretch the imagination, contemporary New Orleans music isn't as fashionable today as it was a couple years ago when everyone from your cool, jobless uncle to a successful and sophisticated college professor could strike up conversation about "this Trombone Shorty guy" or "someone named Kermit." Treme is getting ready to close up shop on HBO with a shortened final run. And the shiny glare that once radiated off this kind of stuff for a short while has lost its fresh look, hipsters now opting for the beats and bleeps of EDM instead of the gritty, soulful nature of NOLA-bred sounds.
Fortunately, none of that is to suggest that the music itself has actually ceased to exist. Case in point: Ruffins' latest jazzy set, We Partyin' Traditional Style!, which might very well be his most complete collection to date, ignoring the tourist's trip down Bourbon and marching right over to Dauphine Street and Vaughn's Lounge, the trumpeter's longtime club du jour for some of his most intimate performances.
Actually, We Partyin's secret weapon would be the live feel that soaks through the speakers like puddles through shoes after a hot summer rain storm on the bayou. Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing the guy perform live knows how inferior his studio work can be to his in-the-flesh sets, and without question this release is his first to make that translation come to life successfully. Opening standard "Chinatown, My Chinatown" swings with the best of 'em, justifying at every turn Woody Allen's decision to use it in his 1987 forgotten gem Radio Days. Better yet is Ruffins' signature scruffy vocal that gives the performance a unique sense of self, a subtle modern twist that makes the century-old composition feel as though it was first dreamed up yesterday.
Equally as upbeat, "Jeepers Creepers" and "Treme Second Line" make a great case for why jazz music isn't dead, and indeed there are still people intent on carrying the craft's torch, all cynics be damned. The former, a 1938 Warren-Mercer classic, skips along with as much pep as a New Orleans Saints cheerleader, the trumpeter's voice exuding a coy happiness with each utterance. Adding a layer of poignancy to the trick is how the similarities between the voices of Ruffins and Louis Armstrong -- the man who first made this tune popular more than 50 years ago -- run deep. It's like Banksy re-imagining the Mona Lisa.
"Second Line", meanwhile, is one of the two token original compositions (the other being the song's intro), and simply put … man, oh man, is it great. Serving as the closest thing to a teleportation device jazz music has ever seen, the tune sweats, bleeds and weeps tears of traditional New Orleans sounds. Here, Ruffins pulls out all the stops as the backing whistles and gangly groove all but physically bring a Treme party into one's home and dare its attendees not to dance. The track is the artist at his best: Rambunctious, inspired and funky. Not once in his 20-year discography has he sounded this raw, this mature or this groovy. All told, it's an achievement of simplicity and a lesson in age.
Hell, even the ballads are worth it. Irving Berlin's "Marie" serves as the set's longest track, yet not once does it feel over-stayed. Highlighting the rendition is the trumpeter's willingness to stretch out and show how tasteful his chops can sound. "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" is lazy in the most beautiful way, Ruffins' easy singing style only adding to the chilled-out feel. And "All Of Me" brings Mykia Jovan into the mix for a welcome female vocal performance that is subtle in its impact, the two main attractions playing off one another with tangible enjoyment. The exercise itself is a present-day take on an old-school formula, and much like the rest of the album, there is just enough tradition left in each second to satisfy any generation thirsty for that New Orleans sound.
But that's what Kermit Ruffins does better than any other bayou boaster around -- he never loses grasp of his undying authenticity, all the while finding tiny ways to expand the time-honored elements of Louisiana-based jazz music. And despite his spotty attempts at bringing that magic formula to the studio setting in the past, We Partyin' Traditional Style! is the sound of a guy finally moving forward with a plan to discover the range of his own artistry. These songs aren't a new beginning anymore than they are a continuation of growth, a transcendent talent hitting its long-overdue stride.
Yep. No star-studded duets needed for this guy. He's got enough ability to fill out that spotlight all by himself. And frankly, the music world is far better off for it.