Eric Traub, veteran saxophonist with a luscious sound, has passed away

PHOTO: MR. B | For lovers of New Orleans music, the saxophone work of the great Eric Traub was everywhere, but unless you were a musician, a serious devotee of live music or a record collector, his genius was often hiding in plain sight. A longtime member of Dr. John’s band, he worked with a who’s who of New Orleans music over the course of over 40 years including deceased legends like Johnny Adams and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown as well as dozens upon dozens of artists still active today.

Eric Traub, who passed away February 15, was a consummate musician, performer, composer and mentor to hundreds of younger musicians. His style on tenor saxophone was informed by some of the undersung greats of the 1950s like Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. He could blow down the walls, but he also had a subtle touch on a ballad we are unlikely to ever hear again.

A brief period performing with the trumpet legend Maynard Ferguson, beginning with his album New Vintage in 1977, marked Traub’s early career. But it was his move to New Orleans in the early 1980s that began a remarkable run of recordings and live performances.

Early on in his tenure as an adopted son, he worked with Johnny Adams on Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, which appeared in 1991. But it was his work a year later, along with numerous other horn players including Charles Neville and Alvin “Red” Tyler (the horn arranger on the Adams album), on Dr. John’s career-defining effort Going Back to New Orleans that signaled he had arrived as an ace ensemble player and a first rate R&B soloist.

Throughout the 1990s, he recorded with a wide range of artists in nearly every genre including soul and blues great Solomon Burke, New Orleans’ own idiosyncratic Americana band the subdudes, brass band supergroup the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, blues and funk guitar shredder Jimmy Bolero, organist Joe Krown, and vocal trio, the Pfister Sisters.

He was also a first-rate jazz player and composer. He contributed three tunes to Johnny Vidacovich’s Banks Street album in 1997 and in 1999 he began a long run recording with trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins.

When the second generation funk band Galactic was developing their sound they had several different saxophonists before their lineup solidified. Traub played all of sax parts on their debut, Coolin’ Off, which put the young band on the map.

His role as a mentor and influence on New Orleans musicians may have begun with the young funkateers, but it continued through a couple more generations of musicians who were schooled in both music and the work-a-day life of a musician by a peerless player with a droll wit and a dry sense of gallows humor.

As the tributes roll in on social media it’s interesting to note how many are from musicians and how few (at least so far) are from fans. That just proves that he was a musician’s musician much like guitarist Todd Duke, who worked extensively with Eric Traub, and also passed away recently. So writing as a serious fan, here are a few of my recollections from hearing the great saxophonist play live.

At a Halloween party in 2015, he joined keyboardist and singer Ed Volker’s side project with members of the Iguanas. Seeing Traub and Joe Cabral (on baritone) facing off on Volker’s original, post Radiators’ tunes was like seeing master and student reach some kind of cosmic equilibrium. And Volker, knowing full well when musicians are in the zone, just let the solos roll.

Back in 1998 right before Jazz Fest, Traub played a show at Tipitina’s with Meters’ drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and his Funk Revue. He appeared alongside guitarists Renard Poche and Camile Baudoin, keyboardist David Torkanowsky and bassist Nick Daniels. Rebirth saxophonist Roderick Paulin was alongside him in the horn section and my notes are succinct: “just incredible!”

There were numerous nights when Traub sat in with Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers. He always drove the band into more straight ahead jazz territory than Ruffins’ usual good time swing or trad stuff. One night during a short period in 2003 when Ruffins’ was playing a regular gig at the Maple Leaf Bar, Traub got up at the end of the set and led the band through a sublime version of “Body and Soul.”

Needless to say there were many more nights, but in all honesty some of the best were at the end of his time in New Orleans when he would lead a trio at Dos Jefes. Eric Traub didn’t need a microphone in that small room and his horn would take over the place much like he took over the hearts and souls of so many music lovers and musicians.

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