Three for the Festival: New CDS for 2009 Jazzfest

Piety Street (Emarcy)
John Scofield
The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)
Allen Toussaint

Livin' a Tremé Life (Basin Street)

Kermit Ruffins

By Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.

You can tell that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is around the corner when the Jazzfest releases start coming out. Three of the early ones are by John Scofield (!), and New Orleanians Allen Toussaint and Kermit Ruffins. These three very different artists all return to the roots of New Orleans music, bringing their own interpretations to jazz and gospel, with a taste of the blues thrown into the pot.

While John Scofield is not a Bayou homeboy, he recruited a New Orleans Krewe: Jon Cleary (piano, keyboards and vocals); George Porter, Jr. (bass); Ricky Fataar (drums); John Boutté (vocals), and Shannon Powell (percussion). Here Sco concentrates on the gospel songbook, getting deeply funky on the opening "That's Enough," and doing a mid-tempo arrangement of "Motherless Child." You can almost see the ushers with the collection plates as you hear "It's a Big Army."

"The Old Ship of Zion" is deep blues, a Saturday night to the soulful Sunday morning of the rest of the selections. Throughout, Scofield and his bandmates mix the best of the gospel and New Orleans funk traditions into a CD that transcends labels and is a welcome addition to the Scofield discography.

Allen Toussaint is perhaps better known as a writer and producer ("Workin' in a Coal Mine," "Mother-in-Law" and "Southern Nights" are examples) than as a pianist. His keyboard skills are remarkable, however. His new release demonstrates not only his virtuosity, but his ability to weave together New Orleans piano styles from second line to R&B, along with some imported stride to into a cohesive modern jazz whole.

Accompanied by Don Byron (clarinet), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Marc Ribot (acoustic guitar) and others, Toussaint breathes elegantly earthy life into chestnuts such as "St. James Infirmary" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." The title track, Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi," takes on a new persona in a down-home, New Orleans style. Toussaint's creativity continues as he enters his 70s, as clearly shown here.

Kermit Ruffins' CD is the most overtly traditional of these new releases. George Porter Jr. (an original member of the Meters) adds his touch, and other musical contributors include David Torkanowsky (piano); Herlin Riley (drums); June Yamagishi (guitar), and others.

Ruffins, a co-founder of the ReBirth Brass Band, digs into classics such as "Didn't He Ramble" and "I Ate Up the Apple Tree" with infectious good humor. He adds his rendition of Toussaint's "Holy Cow" to the classic version by Lee Dorsey. In memory of his recently departed father, he delivers a heartfelt version of Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," complete with vocals. This is another winning entry to Ruffins' recording catalog.

You want more? Try www.johnscofield.com, www.nonesuch.com/allenand www.myspace.com/kermitruffinsmusic or http://www.basinstreetrecords.com.