Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

kermit cd

Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (Basin Street Records)

Kermit Ruffins has become Kermit, Inc., gathering crowds for regular gigs in New Orleans, running his own restaurant, touring and memorably playing himself—an eminently good-natured, way laidback jazz cat—on HBO’s Treme.

He’s still releasing appealing audio souvenirs. This time, he applies his distinctive barking, slurring and growling playing and singing to traditional tunes, with several of the city’s top-rank musicians, including drummer Shannon Powell, pianist Steve Pistorius, banjo man Don Vappie and trombonist Lucien Barbarin.

“Careless Love” benefits from a gospel-blues underpinning, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” is a suitably warm and mellow salute to St. Louis, the punchy “Treme Second Line” is reminiscent of Ruffins’ days with the Rebirth Brass Band and a playful “When the Saints Go Marching In” caps it all.

“Treme” Third Season Finale Loaded With Tons O’ Great Players

Has there EVER been a television drama that has given as much respect to musicians as HBO’s “Treme,” in terms of screen time, playing time, and genuine appreciation for musical art, not to mention insights into the day-to-day reality of working musicians?

I think not.

Sunday’s third-season finale, a prelude to the truncated Season “3.5,” wrapped up — or pointed in the direction of wrapping up — a ton of story strands.

In one, fiddle player and singer Annie (Lucia Micareli) sees her band’s debut CD released and enjoys a rather too speedy rocket ride to a national stage, with her manager planning a launch party in New York City. The script even works in a reference to New Orleans’ long-running music monthly: “This ain’t about Offbeat, darling,” he says. “It’s about Rolling Stone and the New York Times.”

At the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street, site of a benefit concert, and elsewhere, Tons of great NOLA players play and/or get speaking lines, including trumpeters Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, and Shamarr Allen; funk/R&B bass master George Porter Jr. (the Meters), keyboardist Ivan Neville, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, guitarist Little Freddie King and, in an intimate duo, singer John Boutte and pianist Tom McDermott.

At one point. four-trombone band Bonerama and series mainstay Antoine Batiste  (Wendell Pierce), a trombonist, are joined by TroyTrombone Shorty” Andrews and Big Sam. “Trombones rule the world,” Antoine says. Indeed. For extra measure, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule (Not from NOLA) joins the low-brass confab for “When My Ship Comes In.”

For fans of New Orleans music & culture “Treme,” while imperfect, is the ship that finally came in, an antidote to other TV series set in the Crescent City. I’ll be sad to see its voyage come to an end.

PLANET JAZZ: Irvin Mayfield, Last Night on “Treme”; Inside-Jazz Story to Read Before You Die; JJA’s Jazz Blogging Webinars

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

Nice seeing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield get some speaking lines on last night’s “Treme.” Great, too, seeing some Mayfield performance footage shot at his Jazz Playhouse club inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street.

Lionel Ferbos, the century-old trad jazz trumpeter, was also seen and heard playing and talking, at the long-running Palm Court Jazz Cafe, in the episode. Ferbos, one of the oldest living links to early jazz, started playing at age 15, in 1926.

“Lionel Ferbos is 101 and he’s playing gigs. He’s walking up on stage, getting his trumpet out and playing,” Mayfield told the Times-Picayune. “He comes out of the water of Jelly Roll Morton, who he heard himself, Louis Armstrong, who he heard himself, Freddie Keppard, who he heard himself. Paul Barbarin, Danny Barker – these are people he heard. In his trumpet sound, you hear all that.”

The episode touches on the much-publicized drive to create a National Jazz Center in New Orleans. The developers of the $716 million project, announced in May 2006, enlisted Mayfield’s support. The project subsequently collapsed.

“Though the National Jazz Center and other subsequent efforts to establish some kind of civic institution to recognize New Orleans’ greatest export have fallen short, Mayfield is confident that such a project will some day get done,” Dave Walker wrote in the Times-Picayune.

” ‘It is just crazy that we have so much history but we don’t have symbols recognizing all that creative achievement,’ he said. ‘We’ve created this music that everybody else around the world is in awe of.’

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Remember “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” a feature (initially published sans byline) published last week in the Village Voice?

Several jazz writers justifiably complained about the piece’s incompleteness, as it covered just 17 years of jazz history (1956-73) and its, uh, obviousness; we really needed another litany of the jazz canon? It didn’t seem to meet the usual, or, at least, former, high standards for a publication that once set a high standard for jazz coverage.

As a sort of (unstated) concession to the criticism, the next day the Voice published another piece, “Ten (More) Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” by Matthew Kassel and Alex W. Rodriguez. This time, the (different) writers offered recommendations culled from about a century of jazz history.

Writing for NPR’s “A Jazz Supreme” blog, Patrick Jarenwattanon filled in some background on how the original ill–fated story came to be:

“The piece itself was simply repurposed from another publication owned by the same media company, and its author wasn’t even credited (it’s a fellow named Joseph Lapin, by the way). It was published by a media entity that used to run Gary Giddins’ column, and Francis Davis essays, and the Jazz Consumers Guide, and the year-end critics poll, and much other current jazz coverage. Underlying all this is the fact that two well-respected music editors, Rob Harvilla and Maura Johnston, have left the Voice in recent years.”

For those outside the jazzosphere, maybe this is all too meta?

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The Jazz Journalists Association continued its webinar series on the art of jazz blogging with a Nov. 13 program featuring Angelika Beener, Veronica Grandison, Alex Rodriguez, and Jonathan Wertheim.

The latest installment, focused on “up-and-coming” jazz bloggers, is archived on YouTube, here.  On the way are two more blogging webinars, slated for Nov. 20 and Dec. 4. Register

JJA members soon will unveil their Top 10 picks for 2012, surveying the year’s best jazz — look for the lists at the organization’s site.

Jazz Fest Diary: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse & More

Whether it’s pre-Jazz Fest anticipation or something else, New Orleans feels like it’s on an emotional upswing.

Mitch Landrieu, stepping down as Lt Governor and being sworn in as the city’s new mayor in less than two weeks, is listening to citizens and putting together his staff; Landrieu, voted in with strong support from blacks and whites alike, is one of the good guys, a vocal proponent of the arts economy.

Saints pride is still in full springtime bloom, with residents and visitors alike contiuing to revel over the end of the “Ain’ts” era, as a billboard near the SuperDome points out.

“Treme,” David Simon‘s superb new HBO series, focused on the lives of musicians and others in New Orleans, just after the storm, is the talk of the city, and the nation.

The 41st annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off tomorrow, following a successful French Quarter fest.

And then there’s this: Real jazz is back on Bourbon Street.

Wednesday night, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield celebrated the one-year anniversary of his Jazz Playhouse. It’s a plush nightclub inside the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street, a place, filled with the sounds of straight-ahead jazz (bebop, modern, post-bop, whatever you want to call it) and trad jazz.

Mayfield celebrated the occasion with a long evening’s worth of performances and jam sessions, in collaboration with the guys from his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and special guest trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who plays himself on “Treme”).

The show was such a success that at one point potential patrons couldn’t get in.

Mayfield, who leads his own group in addition to fronting the NOJO and playing a major role as a musical ambassador for New Orleans, turned in a gorgeous version, muting his horn, of “My Funny Valentine.”

Shortly later, joined by a group including saxophonist Aaron Fletcher, he offered a long, rousing medley, with “This Little Light of Mine” segueing into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Saints Go Marching In” and “We’re Gonna Second Line.” Along the way, he engaged the cheering, singing, fired-up crowd in the Saints’ “Who Dat?” chant.

Earlier in the evening, at a reception honoring the club’s anniversary, Mayfield and his partners in the club, as well as pianist David Torkanowsky, talked about the significance of the Jazz Playhouse.

Torkanowsky recalled the high-quality jazz — by Al Hirt, Louis Prima, Pete Fountain — that was heard when he first strated playing Bourbon Street several decades ago, before the French Quarter started  “slow and steady slide into ‘Girls Gone Wild’.”

Mayfield’s club, Torkanowsky said, is “a symbol of hope that this street will come back (for good jazz). You can make money monetizing a true representation of this city through its culture.”

Also on hand for the reception was Wendell Pierce, AKA trombone player Antoine Batiste on “HBO.” He helped cut the cake (see pic) and added a bit of celebrity to the proceedings.

In town for Jazz Fest? The Jazz Playhouse offers a long list of great shows over the next 10 days or so, including shows feturing Mayfield, Torkanowsky, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Jason Marsalis, singer Johnaye Kendrick, fiddler Amanda Shaw, Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, and tributes to Danny Barker.

For more information go to Mayfield’s site or the Royal Sonesta site.

America Needs It Some “Treme”

“America needs it some Kermit,” the New Orleans DJ and sometime musician played by Steve Zahn says, about halfway through the first episode of  HBO’s “Treme,” which debuts tonight on the heels of much critical praise.

Davis McAlary (Zahn), inspired by real-life scenester Davis Rogan, is talking to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, his bandmates and friends after a show at Vaughan’s, a tiny, shotgun-style bar in the Bywater, where Ruffins has a long-standing Thursday night gig.  In the scene, Davis is lamenting Ruffins’ failure to at least say hello to Elvis Costello, who’s in town for a recording collaboration with pianist-songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Ruffins and Costello play themselves, as does Vaughan’s, where Ruffins plays and cooks barbecue for his listeners.

That authenticity, in a show created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”), with help from the late David Mills and novelist George Pelecanos, as well as New Orleans writers Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, has everything to do with why fans of New Orleans music and culture — including native New Orleanians, I hope — will be enthused by “Treme.”

Why? Because Mills and Co. got it right: the broken-down, hardscrabble hand-to-mouth feel of New Orleans, in the months and years immediately following Hurricane Katrina; the unique cultural milieu, as defined in part by the city’s cuisine and Mardi Gras Indian traditions; the brass-band scene.

As is true about New Orleans, music is soaked into the fiber of “Treme,” as demonstrated by:

  • That aforementioned scene at Vaughan’s, where Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play “Skokian”
  • A native New Orleanian trumpet player makes it big in New York, with a scene shot at the Blue Note – Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, anyone?
  • Rebirth Brass Band plays “Feel Like Funking It Up” and the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”
  • Treme Brass Band plays “A Closer Walk With Thee” during a post-funeral parade
  • McAlary sits at a piano for a few bars of Professor Longhair‘s “Big Chief.”
  • McAlary goes to WWOZ-FM for his weekly show, and rails about being forced to play “the New Orleans canon,” although it’s apparent he loves every bit of it – he goes gaga over a Dave Bartholomew box set, and he blasts NOLA hip-hop just to annoy his genteel, classical-loving neighbors.

The storyline largely centers on the ups and downs of trombonist Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) and McAlary, as well as secondary characters including a professor (John Goodman) raging at the federal government’s decades-long failure to bolster the levees; his wife (Melissa Leo), an attorney fighting for the rights of the dispossessed; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) who returns to his devastated home, and hopes to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame; a bar owner, Antoine’s ex-wife (Khandi Alexander), mourning her brother, apparently lost in the storm; and  a chef (Kim Dickens) desperately trying to rebuild business for her popular neighborhood restaurant.

As might be expected from Simon, the various strands of the larger narrative — NOLA’s return from the brink of disaster — are smartly woven together in the first episode, directed by Agnieszka Holland. The characters are compelling, as are their stories.

Which brings us back to Kermit. Yes, America needs Kermit and his joyful, good-time music, rooted in New Orleans traditional jazz.

And America needs “Treme,” a show that serves as a necessary reminder of all the reasons — music, food, culture, a group of survivors who won’t quit — that New Orleans still deserves to be celebrated as one of our country’s great treasures. It’s “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” according to something Goodman’s characters says.

Ultimately, “Treme,” which will run 10 episodes for its first season, wants to figure into the continuing rebirth of New Orleans, to play a role in furthering that economic and spiritual renaissance.

It’s off to a great start.

“Making ‘Treme’ ” – Tonight on HBO

Just got the word from Basin Street Records head Mark Samuels: “Making ‘Treme,’ ” a behind-the-scenes look at “Treme,” a new series focused on New Orleans music and culture, post-Katrina, airs tonight on HBO.

Kermit Ruffins, the charismatic trumpeter and singer who plays himself on the series — like anyone else could step into that role — has recorded for Basin Street since 1998. His latest CD, “Livin’ a Treme Life,” was released last year. “Treme” debuts on April 11.

Check out Kermit’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” recorded at Tipitina’s, below.

And here’s a long New York Times piece, written by Wyatt Mason, on how David Simon (“The Wire”) went about creating “Treme.”

Key graph from Mason’s story: “As much as crime of every kind was central to “The Wire,” music is the focus of “Treme.” New Orleans-born and Juilliard-trained Wendell Pierce (William “Bunk” Moreland in “The Wire”) plays a trombone player looking for any gig he can get; Steve Zahn plays a feckless singer-songwriter with an allergy to paying work. As in “The Wire,” many nonactors, in this case professional musicians, have been cast in “Treme” in leading roles: the violinist Lucia Micarelli plays a street musician; a charismatic local trumpeter, Kermit Ruffins, plays himself; and dozens of other musicians — from Dr. John to Elvis Costello — appear in smaller parts. The cast is different from “The Wire,” however, because a number of more famous actors are part of “Treme.” John Goodman plays an English professor-novelist enraged by federal and municipal post-Katrina intransigence; the Academy Award-nominee Melissa Leo is a civil rights attorney with a soft spot for starving artists; and Clarke Peters, the distinguished stage and screen actor memorable in “The Wire” as the miniature-furniture-making detective Lester Freamon, plays an independent contractor and a Mardi Gras Indian chief.”

New Orleans Wins, and It’s Not Just About Football

The New Orleans Saints are bound for the Superbowl in Miami. And that reality, after last night’s victory, means something so much larger than football, as several commentators have pointed out.

It’s a big shot in the arm for the confidence of a city just beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And it’s a chance for the city of New Orleans to shine, to show off its pride and, more importantly, its unique indigenous culture, for a global television audience.

Here’s hoping that the Crescent City’s movers and shakers fully avail themselves of the chance — even from a distance — to spotlight the region’s music, art and food in a manner that best represents New Orleans and that that results in bringing droves of tourists back to the city.

That could result in long-term, long-lasting economic benefits for the city. Tourism means dollars, and more dollars can help in vital rebuilding projects.

In the short term, let’s hope that the city — particularly its educational institutions, arts organizations, and initiatives that address unemployment and related housing and hunger issues — benefits immediately from the hundreds of millions of dollars that will cycle through the Superbowl.

The Superbowl is just the first of several high-profile opportunities for New Orleans to shine, including the French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest, and, perhaps most significantly, the April debut of HBO’s music-driven series “Treme.” How could  a television show starring ebullient trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, as himself, NOT charm audiences?

Opportunity’s knocking. Here’s to a great and productive season for a city poised for an overdue rebound.