- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

New Orleans trumpet player Kermit Ruffins' new CD, "Big Easy" (released last month by Basin Street Records) showcases why he has been called a modern-day Louis Armstrong, a concept with which the jazzman is completely at home. "If you're going to be compared to somebody," Mr. Ruffins says of the late jazzmeister, "you might as well be compared to the best there has ever been."

Born and raised in New Orleans, Mr. Ruffins, 37, became familiar with his idol's musical canon early in life. An aspiring trumpet player, he first played professionally with the Rebirth Brass Band and was part of a renaissance in New Orleans brass band music. It was with Rebirth that he honed his Armstrong-like skills by studying videos of Mr. Armstrong's performances as part of his daily routine.

"When I realized 'Pops' [Mr. Armstrong] was the best I started imitating him, learning all his songs, the licks that he played on the trumpet," says Mr. Ruffins in an interview from his home in New Orleans. "And the melodies to Armstrong's music [are] what led me to sing as well as play trumpet just the way he sang a little bit behind the beat, really relaxed like he was in a rocking chair."

The comparisons don't stop with music. His personal warmth stacks up to the well-documented charms exhibited by Mr. Armstrong, who was by all accounts a genteel man.

"It's his voice, his essence, his aura even more than his music that recalls Louis Armstrong," says Joseph Irrera, editor and co-publisher of the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat. "Louis Armstrong used to put a smile on people's faces immediately when he walked in the room that's what Kermit does, it's just the kind of person he is and that's why the public reacts so nicely to him."

With his sonic trumpet playing and scat singing, Mr. Ruffins takes his idol's inspiration and a gumbo of New Orleans musical influences to craft his own sound, a hard swinging infectious groove that is both modern and old-school simultaneously.

On "Big Easy," Mr. Ruffins has put together a stunning collection of songs, several of which capture the essence of life in New Orleans, nicknamed the "Big Easy" for it's "live and let live" way of life.

Mr. Ruffins' "When I Die (You Better Second Line)" is such a song. It's his interpretation of a New Orleans tradition, the jazz funeral. "At a jazz funeral, the mood turns from somber to joyous as you celebrate the spirit rising above, marching from the church to the burial site with a brass band," Mr. Ruffins says, remembering that at one such event he heard someone say, "When I die you better second line" (dance down the street) along with the band which provided the inspiration for this tune."

The title track, "Big Easy" is another number inspired by Mr. Ruffins' vision of New Orleans. It celebrates living in that city as Mr. Ruffins does. Out of the song, images of his life leap forth his spiritual haunts in New Orleans the historic Treme neighborhood and the juke joints where he performs his music and eating his favorite boiled crawfish and jambalaya.

"I'm a cat who can only write about the things I know," he says. "That's the best way to write, exactly what you feel and what you do on an everyday basis. It always comes out so natural when you write tunes that way."

As a performer, Mr. Ruffins caters, literally, to his audiences. He's known for cooking the New Orleans staple red beans and rice with hot sausage for his backing band, The BBQ Swingers, and for serving it along with other fare to his fans before, during and after shows. He initially began cooking at performances to keep his band mates happy, learning that if they stayed well fed they would perform better. For his fans, Mr. Ruffins does the same, treating the audience to what New Orleanians call a lagniappe: "a little something extra to get the band and the fans dancing."

When asked about other goals as a performer, the answer is on the tip of his tongue: "To reintroduce the New Orleans jazz sound to the world," he says.

Perhaps with "Big Easy," Mr. Ruffins will do so as his predecessor Louis Armstrong once did.

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