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Published: 2005/06/02
by Brian Ferdman

Throwback – Kermit Ruffins with the Rebirth Brass BandLivin’ Large – Joe Krown Organ Combo

Basin Street Records 0105-2


Solo projects often become bloated, self-indulgent affairs. The soloist, freed from the chains of his usual band, frequently takes too much control in the studio, stifling his fellow musicians and creating a paean to excess. The end result of such an effort can easily become unsatisfying to the soloist, his band, and more importantly, the listener. Thankfully, two new solo releases from New Orleans musicians have taken the opposite path, crafting albums that rely on strong interplay between instrumentalists in talented ensembles.

Several years ago, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and tuba player Phil Frazier formed a band with some fellow high school students. After playing at a local P.T.A. event, the musicians walked home through the French Quarter and, when prompted to play their horns, received enough tips to buy a lot of Popeye's chicken and beer. Thus, the Rebirth Brass Band was born, ushering in a new wave of younger brass bands. In the years since, Frazier continued to carry the Rebirth flag, but Ruffins branched out on a quest to transform into the second coming of Louis Armstrong.

Now Ruffins has returned to his roots to record Throwback with his old bandmates, and from the opening notes of "Make Way for the Rebirth," it’s clear that the old chemistry is still there. With frenetic snare rolls and train-like horn blasts, a delicious musical chaos is created. It’s vintage Rebirth, and the heavily partying vibe is continued on a jubilant "Mardi Gras Day," complete with shouting, laughing, and God knows what else happening in the background. A manic cover of "Mr. Big Stuff" seems perfectly suited for this lineup, and everyone keeps the pace racing on "Here to Stay," a fiery tune that percolates with energy.

While Throwback does include a couple of mediocre ballads and one thoroughly out-of-place hip-hop number ("Up in the Hood"), the obvious strength of the album is the litany of hyperactive, carefree songs that nearly spiral out-of-control and always teeter on the edge of intonation. This has become Rebirth’s signature sound, and Ruffins feeds off it like a starving man coming home to his momma’s cooking. Rather than using Rebirth to enhance his own sound, Ruffins selflessly plays to enhance Rebirth’s sound. His altruism is admirable, and it has resulted in a thoroughly entertaining album that reads much more like a Rebirth release than a Kermit Ruffins project.

Known by many as Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's longtime sideman, Joe Krown has forged his own path in recent years, exploring the realm of organ-fueled funk. With his Hammond B-3 and a couple of Leslies in tow, Krown has become one of the city's most respected organists. His skills are readily apparent on two of the better songs on Livin’ Large, as he winds snaking solos through "New Finish" and swirling lines shoot across the classic New Orleans backbeat of "Under The Influence." Krown’s brand of funk stays lighter than most, although he occasionally dips into a heavy groove on songs like the squonk-laden but lumbering "Slow Daddy" and the bopping "Open 24 Hours."

While Krown has serious skills and can craft a sweet solo, much of this album has a certain sameness to it. The fault lies clearly at the feet of drummer Mike Barras, who tends to utilize some rather pedestrian beats. In a city known for its unique and inspired rhythms, Barras all too often settles for a generic funk feel. Nevertheless, he does have his moments, such as the aforementioned "Slow Daddy," where saxes, drums, and organ all ratchet up some invigorating interplay. Great moments such as these make the Joe Krown Organ Combo a combo and not a solo project. By refusing to hog the spotlight, Krown leans heavily on his bandmates for inspiration, and as a result, each number on Livin’ Large sinks or swims as a team effort.

Both Ruffins and Krown could have easily treated their backup musicians as minions to do their bidding, but instead, they each rely upon their respective bands to create a cohesive and full sound. Each musician seemingly plays a vital role in the creative process, and everyone listens to one another to build a true ensemble performance. The end result of such tactics are albums that sound more like a band than a star vehicle, featuring music that appears genuine, natural, and ego-free. Nothing wrong with that.

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