New Orleans: Then and Now

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The Putumayo catalog generally focuses on the rather amorphous genre of world music, with titles like Brazilian Groove, Women of Africa and Greece: A Musical Odyssey. Two new Putumayo collections, however, cover somewhat less exotic, though no less musically fertile territory: New Orleans.

The first disc is devoted to Kermit Ruffins, the trumpeter, singer and ubiquitous presence on the Crescent City music scene. On a recent visit to New Orleans, I found Ruffins appearing at three separate clubs in a span of four days, while also showing up on lampposts promoting the city's anti-littering campaign.

The Putumayo compilation is drawn from Ruffins' seven albums as a leader for Basin Street and Justice Records, made after he split from the groundbreaking Rebirth Brass Band. The set highlights Ruffins' gruff vocals and energetic trumpet playing on familiar standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "After You've Gone," as well as some more party-themed originals. It's a solid, if somewhat tame (given the raucous nature of his live performances) introduction to his hip-hop inspired take on classic New Orleans jazz.

Ruffins also leads off the second Putumayo collection, titled simply New Orleans , a broad overview of the city's musical tradition that's clearly geared more for novices than seasoned fans. While discs like this can always be criticized as much for what they omit as for what they include - decisions often influenced more by fees and licensing than taste - the folks at Putumayo have done a decent job of balancing the old and the new, the obvious and the surprising.

Along with Ruffins, the disc features selections from such leading lights of contemporary N'awlins jazz, blues and swing as Dr. John, Dr. Michael White and Deacon John, along with legendary figures like Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima. Especially moving is the collaboration between the late Doc Cheatham and one of his young trumpet heirs, Nicholas Payton, on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Without trying to be definitive, this as about as good a one-disc encapsulation of the New Orleans spirit as one could hope for. As a gustatory bonus, the attractive Putumayo package also includes chef Paul Prudhomme's recipe for seafood gumbo.

Finally, for hardcore fans of early New Orleans jazz, Britain's JSP Records has released four discs under the banner Breaking Out of New Orleans. It's an interesting theme, tracing the journey of New Orleans music in the 1920s to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and beyond. Most of the celebrated names of the era are represented in both rare and classic recordings, including Louis Armstrong (with the Red Onion Jazz Babies), Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet and Freddie Keppard.

These discs have been remastered and sound about as good as 80-year-old recordings can, though a few cuts remain barely listenable.

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