I’ve used those lines too many times in print. Besides, they were one measure too cute the first time around, when I wrote about Shorty in The Wall Street Journal in 2010.
As anyone in New Orleans has long known and most outside the city know by now, when Troy Andrews (his real name) was just 5 years old, already playing trombone in second-line parades in the Tremé neighborhood, his older brother James, a trumpeter of deep local influence and widespread renown, shouted out the nickname “Trombone Shorty.” It stuck.
These days, it’s pretty much a brand—one that has attracted buzz like a hot IPO luring investors or, well, a pop star breaking through the clutter. Investors in Shorty’s career, like me (as a listener and a journalist, that is) are in for the long haul and expecting serious returns. There’s a stylistic brand name also, though less catchy—“supafunkrock,” which is what he calls his amalgam of genres (and don’t be fooled, jazz is in there too).
His eyes concealed behind stylish sunglasses, his sinewy frame leaning forward, his feet planted like a boxer’s, his trombone pointed straight ahead, Shorty plays crisply articulated lines and, when singing, is as smoothly declarative as any R&B singer. When he switches to trumpet, the notes come brightly, often high and sweet, much like those of a Cuban player today or an early New Orleans jazzman. The big, dense sound of his Orleans Avenue band contains the heft of arena rock, the crunch of heavy metal, the scruffy textures of alternative rock, and the bottom-heavy throb of hip-hop. Running through it all, suggested more by the horns than drummer Joey Peebles’ beats, is the insistent, rolling groove of a New Orleans parade. In performance, at precise moments during “Hurricane,” a track from his Grammy-nominated 2010 CD “Backatown,” Shorty enticed the crowd to shout “Hey!” For most dancing in the audience, this must have seemed a typical hands-in-air dance-club impulse. But when I spoke to him back then about the construction of the song, and about that “Hey!” he said he was thinking of that moment — anyone who attends Sunday second-line parades in New Orleans knows it — when the Rebirth Brass Band issues its call and the second-liners respond.
I’ve been listening to Shorty’s brand-new CD, “Say That to Say This” (Verve). I’ve also followed an interesting dialogue between writers Alex Rawls and John Swenson, two of the most astute writers in New Orleans on the subject of local culture, at Rawls’s excellent website MySpiltMilk, prompted by Rawls’s review. I wouldn’t go as far as Rawls does in calling Shorty’s new CD “the genuine start to Trombone Shorty’s recorded music career.” It’s the lastest in a clear three-album progression—more polished and refined, for sure, than the previous two, but also in some ways of a piece with them. Still, Rawls makes two salient points, with which I agree:
On the new “Say That to Say This,” Raphael Saadiq replaces Galactic’s Ben Ellman in the producer’s chair and the result puts his sound in a “modern” R&B context. Modern comes in quotations because Saadiq’s trademark is his ability to bring today’s sounds to earlier R&B moments and produce something with classic resonances that’s fresh and urgent. Since Shorty similarly bridges New Orleans’ horn traditions with modern rock crunch, the pairing makes sense….
“Say That to Say This” is successful for a couple of reasons. First, it presents Shorty as a stronger singer. He has been a compelling front man for years, but he was a serviceable singer, one who succeeded more by not doing anything wrong than because he sang particularly well. Throughout the album, he sounds comfortable as a singer who’s emotionally invested in the songs’ sentiments.
In a comment, Swenson expands on that last point:
Like the absolute pro he is, he worked on this aspect of his game in live performance until he could bring it like the best. He took on James Brown at first, then Prince. Now he’s absolutely his own voice, and as you point out, it’s actually one of the biggest strengths of “Say That to Say This.” Troy’s work ethic only means this shit is gonna get even better as he goes on. Orleans Avenue’s players are also developing. There will come a day when mainstream pop listeners won’t even remember who The Meters were but Trombone Shorty will enjoy Armstrong-like success. As the New Orleans of The Meters’ generation fades into history, a city that no longer resembles what it was pre-Katrina, it’s going to need new-generation heroes. Shorty gets that job done.
Again, I wouldn’t step that far out on a limb. I’m not sure even Armstrong would enjoy Armstrong-like success in the current cultural marketplace, anyway. The parallel with Armstrong, however lightly Swenson tossed it out, is problematic in many ways, not least that Armstrong mastered if not helped invent the modern jazz solo in all its richness and subtlety of harmonic and rhythmic implication. And yet there’s a wondrous magnetism in common, drawn from pure sound as much as anything else. That connection was driven home for me in 2008, when Shorty was among the featured musicians in a Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Kings of the Crescent City” concert, focused on early New Orleans jazz. Among the musicians onstage, he likely had the least experience with the repertoire. Yet when it came time to solo on an Armstrong piece, Andrews lifted a trumpet and blew with enough power, bite and soul to bring the upscale, reserved audience to a roar. He stole the show.
Swenson writes from a perspective he’s fleshed out in detail, especially in his book “New Atlantis” (Oxford University Press): He means it when he claims that the New Orleans in which, say, the Meters ruled, and Armstrong remained king, is fading away. I’ve written widely about that very transition since 2005, which has much to do with a long history of embattlement, especially surrounding issues of indigenous culture, as the trauma of a flood. And so Swenson is right to say that if new heroes and stars will replace the past, Shorty is a welcome figure: His talent is brilliant, his attitude sharp, his dedication impressive, his swagger convincing, and his heart, from all appearances, pure. Still, The Meters aren’t about to disappear from anyone’s consciousness anytime soon, least of all that of Shorty, who daydreamed about playing in the group when he was a kid: The group’s original members, who hadn’t recorded together since 1977’s “New Directions,” are featured on one track, a remake of that album’s “Be My Lady.”
Shorty’s new music is slick, maybe even a bit too much so for my tastes at times. It projects the exuberance and energy of youth, or young adulthood, with perhaps not enough of the restraint that might come with time. But it is clear in its intent, forthright and sincere in its style and tight in its execution, which is more than we can say for a whole lot of pop, rock or jazz. It’s believable. There are jangly guitars, harmonized horn punches, big and bold beats, smooth croons and sweet entreaties—not new stuff, but rendered with an individuality that I’d like to think would make New Orleans icons, from Armstrong to, say, Allen Toussaint, smile. Shorty takes the signature riff of Earth Wind and Fire’s “Getaway” as the bed on which his “Vieux Carre” rests; he’s not the first to grab that staccato horn line, but his take has a new cadence and slips into a neat reharmonization. And every now and then, he pulls out something few have, like when he turns a single repeated note into a seared-in sonic tattoo during his solo on “Fire and Brimstone.”
I’ve watched Shorty grow, not just as a singer and player but also as a smart bandleader and savvy performer. And I witnessed the “work ethic” to which Swenson refers up close, in 2006, while working on a long cover feature for Jazziz magazine (you may need to register on the site to click through to the digital issue):
In October 2006, Andrews and his band were holed up in the “gumbo room” within the Music Shed studio in Uptown New Orleans, which he shares with his cousin Derrick Tabb. The mood was friendly but intense. Andrews showed guitarist Pete Murano precisely how and where a riff should fall. “No, that’s not funky enough, make it like the Neville Brothers,’ he said. “Whatever you do, keep up the intensity,” he instructed his band later. “This is not jazz.” Then Andrews cut the lights, demanding that even cellphones be turned upside down to eliminate their glare. “Our ears become our eyes,” he explained later. “That’s how we get tight.”
Andrews had been on tour with Lenny Kravitz for months after the flood. When he returned, he had a newfound fire within him and some very specific ideas about his band. “I’ll never forget this,” Andrews says. “I came back and we played a show, and I was frustrated. I was looking at the clock. We were still jamming, but Lenny had taught me to create something precise. I needed that.” Bassist Mike Ballard, who first met Andrews as a 10-year-old at the annual Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Camp, recalls the shift in emphasis. “We weren’t jamming anymore,” he says. “We had a formula.” For drummer Joey Peebles, “It really did go from throwing something together to ‘Hey, you missed your part.’”
In another comment on Rawls’s site, Swenson wrote:
The tour with Lenny Kravitz was the turning point in Troy’s career because he saw how it was done on a big stage outside of the context of being a New Orleans band with the readymade crowd triggers expected of a New Orleans band…. Lenny’s influence on Shorty resembles King Oliver’s influence on Armstrong. If it wasn’t for Oliver Armstrong may have never left New Orleans.
Like most actively touring musicians, Shorty doesn’t spend all that much time at home. But in the sense of maintaining a home, I don’t think he’ll ever truly leave New Orleans, where his brother James is, where his mother is, where his many cousins who dot the brass-band and club scene with the surname Andrews are. The thing that may ultimately ground and elevate Shorty most of all, wherever he ends up heading with his music, is the fact that and he knows from whence he came.
On the new CD, most of his lyrics are of the general (“some people take/ what others bring,” and so on…) But here and there, at his best, he gets personal, as on “You and I (Outta This Place)”:
“Run, baby, baby run,” he sings. “You wanna feel as light as a feather/Run, little brother, run/ Run, little brother, don’t stop till we’re where we belong/ You and I, you and I/ Will no longer be denied.” And on “Fire and Brimstone”: “My brother told me so/ You’ll be the greatest man alive when I’m gone.”
“I’m the one who took Troy off the front porch,” James Andrews, Shorty’s brother, 16 years his senior, once told me. “I got him a little suit and took him around the world on tour: Cuba, Japan, Paris, Dubai.” Back at home, Tremé was a warm and inviting place. Folks on Dumaine Street would hang out, share their cooking, converse from porch to porch. Every now and then the reverie would be interrupted by gunfire, often emanating from the nearby Lafitte housing projects where their grandmother lived. When Troy was 10, another older brother, Darnell (“D-Boy”) was fatally shot there. “He was one hell of a trombone player, too,” James says. “After my brother died, my family was so devastated,” James continues, “I had to catch my little brother. I vowed that I would protect him and guide him and pamper him. I had a recording out. I was on a good ride. I tapped my own resources and my friends.”
In one early episode of the HBO series “Treme”, Shorty—who is among the New Orleans musicians with recurring cameo roles—sat in the green room prior to a New York City post-Katrina benefit concert, eating a slice of pizza and talking to fictional trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (played by Rob Brown), who had moved from New Orleans to New York following the flood.
Don’t you miss home?” Shorty asked.
Delmond didn’t miss a beat. “In New Orleans, they hype the music but they don’t love the musicians. The tradition is there but that city will grind you down if you let it.”
How would the real Shorty complete that fictional scene? “I wouldn’t say ‘for true’ to that,” he says. “They love me, and I love them. End of story.”
As for “Say That to Say This,” it’s the latest chapter in what I expect will be a long story of a career worth watching. It already has taken Shorty far from home and beyond some expectations. Yet it will never lure him fully away. And, though the new CD is full of compelling stuff, I suspect the best is yet to come.
Photo: Jonathan Mannion