With the temperature plunging and the streets decked out in ice and snow, there were few better ways to warm up last weekend than heading to Blues Alley for some good, old-fashioned New Orleans jazz performed by revivalist Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers.
Hailing from the city of swing itself, Ruffins has dedicated his life to celebrating the music, food, and dance of his home town, and to Ruffins that means swingin' jazz Louis Armstrong style. A committed revivalist, Ruffins is not simply interested in performing the musical styles of years past. He's dedicated to reinvigorating the culture that surrounded the music as well, and this is Ruffins' greatest appeal. His playfulness, energy, and sense of fun keep his endeavors from becoming a museum experiment or a stale rehashing of sounds and styles. The energy that Ruffins exudes instead transforms his performances into a living, breathing reminder of jazz's origins, as well as a damn good excuse to get on your feat and dance.
Despite the initially small crowdmost patrons arrived late because of the weatherRuffins opened up the night with a rousing number titled "Chicken and Dumplings" that showcased the band's ability to swing hard and Ruffins' capacity to channel Armstrong's basic trumpet and singing styles, down to the gruff gravel and bent-note flourishes.
Pausing to introduce the band, Ruffins proceeded to contradict the house announcer by inviting everyone to talk as much as they wanted, laugh as loud as they wanted, and to get up and dance. Ruffins then launched into a playful rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," followed by an equally clever version of "We Ain't Misbehavin'" and an instrumental piece featuring an extendedand impressivesolo by slide trombonist Corey Henry.
By the time Ruffins announced the night's fifth tune, "I've Got the World on a String," the usually staid Blues Alley crowd finally melted under the influence of Ruffins' exuberance, skilled playing, and expert showmanship, and for the first time in this writer's memory, they got to their feet and danced. Initiated first by a brave couple (from New Orleans), the whole room soon began to rise, sway, and move to the band's insistent groove while Ruffins growled out the lyrics and drummer Derek Freedman pounded out the rhythm. As the song progressed, people began to clap, wave napkins, and dance their way between the tightly packed tables and chairs.
Of course, as good as Louis was, what would he have been without Ella? In keeping with this tradition of great duets, Ruffins went on to announce a guest appearance by vocalist Topsy Chapman, who took the stage to a boisterous round of applause and proceeded to steal the show with a series of crowd-pleasing tunes including a slow blues, an up-tempo take on "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and one of the night's highlights, a duet, modeled on the Louis classic titled "Butter and Egg Man" during which Ruffins' playing, singing, and general humor once again brought the crowd to its feet.
Although Ruffins and his band mates may not be the most refined or innovative of players, by the end of the evening, with the crowd in full cheer, dancing and calling for more, it became abundantly clear why Ruffins has become a fixture in his home town of New Orleans, and more importantly, why no matter how much jazz has evolved, it's still good to step back every now and then and experience a little taste of the old days.