Crescent City cool
Trombone Shorty is funneling New Orleans’ dirty brass tradition into a fresh sound all his own.
By Naila Francis
He likens it to a musical utopia.
Growing up in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans’ 6th Ward — sometimes referred to as “the most musical neighborhood in America’s most musical city” — it seems only natural that Troy Andrews never considered doing anything but music.
He briefly entertained thoughts of embarking on another career around age 17, but by then the trombonist and trumpeter known as Trombone Shorty had already become such a vibrant, integral part of his hometown’s cultural fabric that tackling any other pursuit seemed like folly.
“I was well into playing gigs and traveling at the time,” says Andrews, whose nickname can be traced to his toting an instrument almost twice his size when he started playing the trombone at age 4. “I figured I can either continue to do what’s been given to me and what I’ve been doing my whole life or I can take another route. To me, what I was doing was just natural.”
Such instinctive tendencies made him somewhat of a child prodigy. A third-generation musician — his grandfather was R&B singer-songwriter Jessie Hill — Andrews began learning the drums at age 3 and playing the trumpet and trombone in his older brother James’ jazz band shortly thereafter. By 6, he was leading his own band.
But while brass band music is rooted in the richest of New Orleans traditions, Andrews, 24, is not aiming to carry that torch. In April, he made his national debut with “Backatown.” The album, which takes its title from the term locals use to refer to the section of New Orleans that includes Treme, was released on Verve Forecast and is steeped in Andrews’ signature sound — a horn-fueled mash-up of rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop and R&B that he calls “supafunkrock.” Although not necessarily a “New Orleans record,” it’s patently influenced by his Crescent City upbringing.
“Growing up in the Treme, it was just like a musical heaven for me as a kid being interested in music. You had all these great musicians just sitting across the street and around the corner. I couldn’t escape music if I wanted to,” says Andrews, who often had musicians walk right into his parents’ home to help him improve his technique if they heard him playing from the street.
“Just being in the city of New Orleans, you know, the home of jazz music, everybody is influenced by everything. My brother was influenced by old-school R&B music. I grew up around jazz and that was my foundation, but … I was always put into different musical situations that you can hear in my sound right now.
“I didn’t close anything out. I’d go down the street and play traditional jazz, and then the next day, I’d sit in with the Neville Brothers and then there was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. To me, it was all just one sound.”
“Backatown” revels in such seamless eclecticism, from the rowdy opening funk of “Hurricane Season” to the smooth soulfulness of ballad “Fallin’ ” and the searing rock edge of cuts like “Suburbia” and “The Cure.” The 14-track disc, produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman, is a mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, with only one cover, a grittier, more sinuous version of Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” featuring the legendary musician himself on piano. Andrews plays trumpet, trombone, keyboard, drums and percussion and also sings, while his band, Orleans Avenue — including Mike Ballard on bass, Pete Murano on guitar, Joey Peebles on drums, Dwayne Williams on percussion and Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax — keeps up the virtuoso pace.
“I wanted my music to have everything in it, which we call a musical gumbo,” says Andrews of his supafunkrock sound. “It’s funky, it’s rocking and we put it to high energy and that’s where the ‘supa’ comes from.”
The rock influence may be a surprise to some, but he did spend a year touring with Lenny Kravitz’s band when he was just 18 — Kravitz lends his guitar and backing vocals to the slinky mid-tempo groove, “Something Beautiful,” on “Backatown”— and has been a fan of the genre since he was introduced to Nine Inch Nails as a teen.
“That was completely different from anything I’d ever heard, coming from the city of New Orleans,” says Andrews, a graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, with alumni including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and the Marsalis brothers. “I was always interested in hearing different things and learning new things other than what I grew up hearing. I used to play along with Nine Inch Nails on my trombone. I just wanted to push my imagination further without even knowing that was what I was doing at a young age.
“I was always wondering: ‘How come there’s no trombone here or no trumpet here?’ ”
Since he didn’t know any of the musicians in the city’s rock scene, he soaked up as much as he could touring with Kravitz, whom he was referred to by a mutual friend who knew that the rock star was looking for new horn players. It was Kravitz who helped shape the recording process for “Backatown” with some memorable advice.
“He said, ‘Make an album that can be an experience. You can rearrange and do anything you want to do live,’ and that made all the difference in the world for me as a young kid,” recalls Andrews, who, with Orleans Avenue, is known for their electrifying live shows that can stretch well into the early morning hours. “I knew I didn’t want to go on this record and play an eight-minute solo.
“The discipline with Lenny was great because … that allowed me to develop the discipline to play a song just like it sounds on a record, which we don’t normally do, coming from a jazz background. Just being on the road with him and seeing how tight the music was, when I came back and played with my band, it sounded like a bunch of noise to my ears.”
In the studio, where the band spent months working on the album, compared to the two to three days they were used to for previous projects on their own Treme Records label, Andrews transferred what he learned by having the guys practice specific parts for 20 minutes at a time.
“We just did that for a week or two just to practice restraint and not do what we want to do and then we started incorporating our thing from there,” he says.
Though he’s often credited with driving the future of New Orleans’ music, Andrews has no such lofty ambitions, despite the undeniably impressive arc of his career. In 2006, following his tour with Kravitz, he performed with U2 and Green Day during the re-opening of the New Orleans Superdome and later that same year made his television debut in the Christmas episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” with a few lines and a riveting performance of “O Holy Night.” Last year, at 23, Andrews became the youngest artist to be depicted on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s Congo Square poster, an honor previously given to Wynton Marsalis at 41.
The momentum has been no less relenting in 2010, with “Backatown” debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts. Andrews, who, in July, was chosen as WXPN’s (88.5 FM) Artist to Watch, also landed a role playing himself in the first few episodes of the new HBO drama “Treme,” and album cut “Hurricane Season” can be heard as the theme song to “The Real World: New Orleans.”
“The reward for me has just been being able to reach a lot of people and people who might not even consider a trombone player to be in their iPod,” he says. “I’m not trying to change anything. I’m just doing what I do.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer