Everybody knows Kermit Ruffins -- everyone in New Orleans, that is. It's virtually impossible to be a music fan in New Orleans and not have encountered Ruffins' streetwise magic, and even those who don't care about music see his secret smile on posters around the city. Once you leave town, it's a different story. Though he's done some hard traveling on the world festival circuit, he has sidestepped the celebrity that has been lavished on musical forebears such as Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Al Hirt, and contemporaries such as Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.
His lack of connection to a major music label has been an obstacle to Ruffins' potential fame. He demonstrated conceptual brilliance in co-founding the ReBirth Brass Band and writing the anthem "Do Watcha Wanna," then reprised the move by creating the ultimate New Orleans party band, the Barbecue Swingers. Working in that physical and metaphorical place where jazz and R&B meet, he has penned a slew of great songs including the contemporary classic "What Is New Orleans?" Outside of this city, it's difficult to find these records, and good luck hearing them on the radio anywhere except WWOZ.
Enter Dan Storper, who uses his mass-marketed Putumayo record label to release compilations of his favorite music from around the globe. His latest projects include New Orleans, a collection of horn-based music opening with Ruffins' "Drop Me Off in New Orleans." Storper also collected an album's worth of Ruffins' material including tracks from his out-of-print albums on Justice Records for a CD simply titled Kermit Ruffins.
Instead of doing a greatest-hits album, Storper fashioned an album that emphasized Ruffins as a vocalist more than an instrumentalist or bandleader. The package offers a fresh look at Ruffins, not as a jazz musician per se, but as a pure entertainer.
Storper hedged his bets by including the muted trumpet instrumental "Leshianne" and closing the set with the raucous "Do the Fat Tuesday" from The Barbecue Swingers Live (Basin Street). He admits he had the average Putumayo consumer's taste in mind when he chose to focus on songs with vocals.
"I decided to have a live track so they could hear some of the jamming, and I wanted to include the instrumental Leshianne,' which is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard," he says. "My instinct is that [the album] leans towards him as a singer of standards that are known and less toward original compositions, although there are several original compositions on there. When anybody puts anything together, you know it's being filtered through their own aesthetic. For me personally and for the Putumayo audience that I feel would appreciate Kermit, this is the best that I could come up with."
Accordingly, Storper picked several songs that are key elements of the Satchmo canon -- "Ain't Misbehavin'," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Monday Night in New Orleans," "When My Dream Boat Comes Home" and "Bye and Bye" -- emphasizing the genius of Ruffins" assimilation of Armstrong with his own raspy growl without mimicking the legend. Unlike the army of Louis-clones who mug their way through "What a Wonderful World," Ruffins inhabits the material.
Take his version of Fats Waller's monumental "Ain't Misbehavin'," one of Armstrong's most popular recordings. Ruffins strides right in as if he owns the tune, using variations on all of Armstrong's familiar techniques as if he's borrowing golf clubs from his partner's bag. He even references one of Armstrong's trademark scats, but the performance is totally, blissfully his own. On his audacious take of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Ruffins' ingeniously inverts Armstrong's phrasing of the title line, singing "On the side of the street that's sunny" and reconfiguring the melody in the process.
Armstrong clearly influenced Ruffins' musical palate, but he didn't define it. Ruffins' rendition of "After You're Gone" is more overtly swing-influenced and recalls Louis Prima with little coincidence; like Prima, Ruffins is an entertainer who plays jazz rather than a virtuoso technician. The jazz critics who have dismissed Ruffins because they don't like his tone or know somebody they think plays the trumpet with more dexterity are in the same boat with the Armstrong experts who dismissed all his work after the early 1930s as pandering to an audience that didn't know better. (The same could be said, by the way, of Prima's entire career.) They also dismiss far too quickly the talent and charisma required to move a crowd.
Ruffins had absolutely nothing to do with assembling the Putumayo collection, but is eager to use it as an overview of his work.
When he found out he is one of the few single artists spotlighted by a Putumayo retrospective, Ruffins was excited. "It's nice to think that 200,000 more people are going to get to know who I am," Ruffins says. "I'm starting to realize that a lot of people out there are accepting me. This could be a turning point for me."
Kermit Ruffins will also perform Thursday at Vaughan's, Friday with Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Jason Marsalis at Loft 523, Saturday at the Blue Nile, Sunday at Joe's Cozy Corner and later that evening with guests at Wisdom.