Capturing the spirit of New Orleans: Kermit Ruffins and music from ‘Treme’

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HBO’s “Treme” series has accomplished the none-too-easy task of capturing the musical pulse of New Orleans, a pulse that continues despite the devastation wreaked on the Crescent City in recent years by hurricanes, broken levees and governmental ineptitude.

The soundtrack from the series covers a lot of ground, but then, so does the city’s uniquely vibrant cultural melting pot, one large enough to encompass jazz, R&B, soul, hip-hop, gospel and blues. Many of the homegrown acts highlighted in the series are here, including the stalwart Rebirth Brass Band, the ever-outspoken Dr. John, the Treme Brass Band, “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas and breakout star Trombone Shorty.

The masterstroke is the engaging in-the-streets or in-the-club atmosphere across the board; the community in which these musicians lives and works is indistinguishable from the music it produces.

Trumpeter-singer Ruffins is represented on the soundtrack with the raucous Latin-accented “Skokiaan.” Anyone inspired to explore his music further will be well served by “Happy Talk,” which leans heavily on the earthy traditional style of New Orleans jazz, an improv-based music far grittier than the slick style that developed after musicians moved north and settled in Chicago decades ago.


Ruffins’ band is versatile enough to handle small combo numbers such as “Panama” with lithe dexterity, shift into big-band mode for a hard-swinging take on Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News,” provide an effervescent second-line framing for the title track and fast-forward for a percolating Latin-jazz spin on “The Wizard of Oz” standard, “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Anyone not taken in by all this freewheeling joy might think about singing a refrain or two of “If I Only Had a Soul.”

—Randy Lewis

Various Artists
“Treme: Music From the HBO Original Series, Season 1”
Three and a half stars

Kermit Ruffins
“Happy Talk”
Basin Street Records
Three and a half stars