A Master of Melody and Swing: Kermit Ruffins and his Happy Talk

By Daniel Garrett

Kermit Ruffins, Happy Talk
Produced by Tracey Freeman,
Basin Street Records, 2010

The sound of the music is recognizably old school New Orleans in “Panama,” on Happy Talk, the Kermit Ruffins album.  It is bright, bustling music, full of energy and joy, full of detail, and it is easy to imagine people dancing in the street to the rhythms—which are jazz with ragtime and swing in them.  Ruffins’ enthusiastic, rough voice is heard amid an uptempo big band sound in Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Hey Look Me Over,” whereas Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News,” a pop song about the return of a desired lover, has a gospel fervor and is given an appealing jazz interpretation—conversational, swift, intense—here on Happy Talk.  Is it possible to hear Kermit Ruffins and not think of New Orleans?

Anyone who has heard of the talented, improvising trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, a friendly sensualist, and one of the founders of the Rebirth Brass Band, as well as a respected barbecue grill man, knows that those who love the trumpeter’s work consider him an embodiment of the spirit of New Orleans.  Born in the same month and on the same day as local institution Professor Longhair, the swinging, herb-loving Kermit Ruffins, a devotee of the singer, trumpeter, and American icon Louis Armstrong and of traditional New Orleans jazz and popular African-American music, Ruffins is all about celebration—of life and culture.  The joyful Ruffins, a master of melody and swing, made his name on the streets, in the clubs, and at the festivals of his native city, playing with peers, elders, and novices.  Kermit Ruffins’ album Happy Talk has a very good mix of songs, and was produced by Tracey Freeman, who has worked often with Harry Connick Jr.; and the recording received the fondest of reviews in November 2010 in Offbeat magazine and the London Observer newspaper.

“You can almost hear Ruffins smile on ‘Hey Look Me Over,’ one of three Happy Talk tracks popularized by Louis Armstrong, his hero.  His voice contains its usual allotment of gravel—he will never be mistaken for Little Jimmy Scott—but his enthusiasm is charming and contagious,” wrote Keith Spera in the New Orleans Times (November 14, 2010).  Keith Spera commented favorably on the collection’s songs and musicians, which include Herlin Riley, David Pulphus, Matt Lemmler, Bobby Campo, Mark Mullins, Ray Moore, and Michael White.  For the most part, I cannot disagree—but I have reservations: are the themes of the songs and the New Orleans focus too picturesque and even predictable?  On the ballad “La Vie en Rose,” Ruffins sing and plays trumpet, and his horn has an appropriately sad sound and yet his personality—open, direct, capable, expressive, well-intentioned—comes through.  His diction is careful, clear, sincere, warm.  It’s a nice rendition.  “You’ve got to have a dream,” sings Ruffins in the collection’s title song “Happy Talk,” a Rodgers-Hammerstein song given exhilarating, exuberant horn playing.  In Arlen and Harburg’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” rather than the lyrics seeming degrading or masochistic, Ruffins’ unique voice and playful tone make this an acceptable song.  As well the drumming is big, full of contrasts, with a controlled energy.  “High Hopes” is another playful song (by Van Heusen and Cahn), making the music something that could appeal to a general audience of different ages.  A chorus supports Ruffins, and there’s a low, throbbing horn too—a trombone?

Kermit Ruffins describes a local neighborhood female, a Treme woman, as being a talking, dancing, plump, sexy figure in “I Got a Treme Woman,” which has a tight beat, sprightly piano, blaring horn, and fast tempo—and it is the kind of beat it is easy to clap with.  Opening with the horn of Ruffins and drum rolls, “Shine,” written by Lew Brown and Ford Dabney, is a song about a man with curly hair and pearly teeth—who is called “Shine.”  It could be a pandering song, the kind of thing that assumes the appearance of a man of color is naturally amusing, an inherently derogatory concept; and it is certainly part of a derogatory history—and thus is a questionable choice.  The song is given a volatile horn section—which may be appropriately suggestive.  “Sugar” is a soft, uptempo ballad composed by Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell; and Kermit Ruffins’ take on Patrick Upton’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” connecting the New Orleans tradition to the larger realm of rock-era popular music, is a nice fit for the repertoire of Ruffins.  Ruffins comes in first with his horn, then his voice, in “More Today Than Yesterday,” and while he is not a great singer—he does not have the range, the technical resources—his singing grows on the listener.  It is part of his singularity, his expression, his generosity-to give as much as he can.  Happy Talk’s last song, “New Orleans (My Home Town),” written by Ruffins, about the pleasures of the city shared with an interested woman, has a fluttery, guttural horn sound and a blues groove.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.