Brass Attacks | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Music » Music Feature

Brass Attacks

Trombone Shorty and the evolution of New Orleans music


Published May 30, 2012 at 7:49 a.m.
Updated November 19, 2020 at 4:43 p.m.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
  • Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

The city of New Orleans is steeped in musical tradition like no other. But here’s the funny thing about traditions in the Crescent City: They evolve.

The Big Easy is famously the birthplace of jazz. But it’s also a hotbed of blues, R&B, funk, rock and hip-hop, among other genres and offshoots that can all trace their lineages as “America’s music.” Just as America is a cultural melting pot, each of those idioms influences the next. And while each style has its own distinct characteristics and attendant traditions, it is inextricably linked to the others. In that sense, the real New Orleans tradition is a music in constant flux.

“Folks outside of New Orleans may not realize the extent to which our music has been modernized,” says DownBeat magazine’s New Orleans jazz critic, Jennifer Odell. “But incorporating elements borrowed from pop, hip-hop and R&B into brass-band music, especially, is in itself a tradition.”

The fresh, smiling face of that tradition — and, consequently, of the modernization of New Orleans music — is a brash, 26-year-old, Grammy-nominated trombone prodigy named Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty. His electric sound is rooted in second-line and brass-band traditions but is equally reliant on rock, funk, R&B and hip-hop. Accordingly, Andrews is the musical heir apparent to the New Orleans greats who include Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, the Marsalis family and more. And, like those giants before him, Andrews is challenging perceptions of what “New Orleans music” is all about.

“He knows how to capitalize on the worldwide appeal of New Orleans music elements like a second line or trombone braggadocio,” says Odell, who adds that Andrews is “consistently expanding his audience by reaching way outside those bounds for new ideas.”

Trombone Shorty’s latest ideas can be heard on For True, a bombastic album released last year that, along with his 2010 record, Backatown, has catapulted him to pop stardom and introduced the world to the concept of “supafunkrock.”

“It’s just a musical gumbo,” says Andrews, explaining his genre in a recent phone interview from his home in New Orleans. It’s a home he rarely sees lately. His newfound success means extensive touring at clubs and festivals worldwide and frequent television appearances, including a recurring role on the HBO series “Treme.” On this day, Andrews says he is home for just a few hours before heading out again with his band, Orleans Avenue. That tour includes a stop at the Waterfront Park Tent in Burlington on Thursday, June 7, as part of the 2012 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

“I’m heavily influenced by the city of New Orleans,” Andrews continues. “I’m influenced by rock music, by hip-hop. So supafunkrock is high-energy, uptempo, fun, party music. It’s like being at Mardi Gras year round. You get a little blues, a little R&B, a little hip-hop, a little jazz, a little funk, rock and roll.” He pauses and then adds, “It’s a direct influence of what we hear every day in New Orleans.”

Raised in the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé, Andrews grew up immersed in the vibrant and varied sounds of his native city. The grandson of late R&B singer Jessie Hill, he was practically born with a trombone is his hands, and has been playing professionally since he was 6 years old. Before his arms were even long enough to fully extend the slide on his horn, Trombone Shorty was sharing stages with — and often upstaging — many of New Orleans’ great players.

DownBeat’s Odell first encountered Andrews playing at a crawfish boil in the late 1990s while she was a critic covering New Orleans music for Rolling Stone.

“I remember being blown away by the hype that preceded this little kid’s arrival as much as his obvious talent,” she says, and adds that Andrews lived up to those lofty expectations. “He had a stage presence even back then, even without a stage.”

Shorty’s older brother, trumpeter and bandleader James Andrews, was instrumental to the child Troy’s musical development.

“As a kid, my brother put me into different musical situations,” recalls Shorty. The elder Andrews took Troy under his wing, serving as a steadfast mentor. He exposed his little brother to as much music as possible, connecting him to Tremé greats such as Kermit Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band founders Keith and Philip Frazier, all of whom he frequently played with on second lines around New Orleans’ 6th Ward. James Andrews even took young Troy on the road with his own group, the New Birth Brass Band. And he coined that nickname when Troy was a toddler.

Though Troy Andrews was playing with and learning from masters of New Orleans jazz, funk and brass-band music, he says he was never cognizant of any specific styles or genres. To him, it was all just music.

“I didn’t really know what to call the music,” he says. “The genres didn’t really matter, because I thought it was all supposed to be one thing, which it should be. That’s the way I grew up, and that’s the way I thought it should be.”

If For True and its roiling bitches’ brew of supafunkrock are any indication, Andrews still thinks that way. But before he could begin bending disparate sounds to his will to create the multifaceted style that has made him famous, Andrews needed to master the classics. An obvious phenom as a child, he learned completely by ear and was never taught music theory. Few players, especially those his age, could match his tone or technique. But Andrews couldn’t speak the language of music. So he enrolled at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a secondary school that has produced some of the biggest names in jazz, including Terence Blanchard, the Marsalis brothers and Harry Connick Jr.

“They weren’t worried about my playing,” Shorty says of his NOCCA instructors. “They knew I could play. But they wanted me to understand the fundamentals of what I was doing. They wanted the kids there to sound like I was already sounding. They wanted me to catch up and learn theory and fundamentals.”

Andrews refers to his education arc as learning “backward.” Most young American musicians learn music in school and then take it to the stage. Andrews did just the opposite, learning his craft on the streets and in New Orleans clubs before refining it in the classroom. But he cautions that formal training can come at a cost.

“Sometimes when you’re a natural musician, when you learn a bunch of stuff, you lose a certain depth of soul,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. You lose something that you had because you know more. The hardest thing for me is to keep what I had as a natural musician, but to make it better.”

Andrews is quick to credit his time at NOCCA for his ability to do exactly that.

“It allowed me to be more comfortable on my instrument and in any setting,” he continues. “Because being educated musically gives you a better tool to play with different types of musicians, to go into different genres and understand what’s going on. If I didn’t get that education, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I’d only be able to do one thing.”

Odell agrees. “He went through all the phases of playing straight-ahead jazz and standards, traditional New Orleans jazz, contemporary brass-band music, and funk and R&B-laced jazz, all of which he handled flawlessly, before finding his voice and developing the music he’s touring today,” she says.

Together, Backatown and For True make up an enigmatic and gleefully elastic whole that both embraces New Orleans traditions and actively seeks to update — even transcend — them. The albums bustle with sweltering funk grooves, fat-bottomed R&B strut, hip-hop swagger — and samples — heady jazz fusion and fiery brass-band bravado. And they juxtapose those styles with an array of other influences and melodies, from surf rock to Eastern European klezmer and gypsy music.

The records also feature a marquee lineup of guest stars, particularly For True. That album includes contributions from Kid Rock, Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes, New Orleans soul diva Ledisi, members of the Rebirth Brass Band and Lenny Kravitz, among others. Kravitz, who invited Trombone Shorty on tour as part of his horn section, was instrumental in steering Andrews toward supafunkrock.

Kravitz also serves as a model for Andrews’ own forays into singing. On Backatown and earlier, Andrews was a reluctant vocalist. But his smoky soul croon on For True suggests increased confidence and capability, and in fact resembles Kravitz’s signature wail.

Produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman — himself no stranger to genre-smashing shenanigans — Trombone Shorty’s latest records make savvy use of the studio as an instrument. The records’ lush, complex arrangements bloom with samples and overdubs, which Andrews and his bandmates ably re-create live, often repurposing parts for the instruments at their disposal during a show. Backing vocal harmonies on the record become horn lines on stage. A keyboard run might be adapted to guitar.

“We’re conversing and filling up the songs playing different parts,” explains Andrews. “It may not be the same sound as the record, but the parts are there.”

Odell notes that the band has figured out how to distill the albums’ many moving pieces live, and that they perform them “beautifully.”

While Andrews’ two recordings share certain stylistic similarities, For True feels more refined and focused than its wily predecessor. Andrews claims he had no “clear vision” for the album, and that its greater cohesion is simply a result of his band learning to play together from so much time on the road.

He explains that the band, many of whose members Andrews has been playing with since he was a child, gelled after Backatown was released, and they had to learn new arrangements to play the album live. The musicians gigged more than 200 shows together that year and developed a close musical affinity.

“So when we went into the studio, we felt that much better and wanted to improve what we’d done on Backatown from a musical standpoint,” Andrews says. “I think when you play that much every day, you just get tighter. We went in feeling more confident and stronger, knowing what it’s like to really focus. And we were anxious to get back in because we’d learned so much since recording Backatown.”

As progressive and provocative as Andrews’ recent records are, they are ultimately the product of the classic sounds that molded him, and a testament to the history of brass-band innovation in the Crescent City.

Odell says the phenomenon began in the 1970s with the Hurricane Brass Band, which morphed into the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, translating songs those musicians grew up hearing on the radio into a second-line brass-band setting. The practice continued with the next generation of brass bands and groups such as the Rebirth Brass Band, which recently celebrated its 29th anniversary and is renowned for borrowing elements of hip-hop, pop and R&B. The progression continues today with groups such as the Hot 8 Brass Band, the Stooges Brass Band — which once included a teenage Andrews as a member — and the Soul Rebels, whom Odell categorizes as pop.

“In the lineage of New Orleans greats, Trombone Shorty fits seamlessly into the next generation’s position after the so-called ‘young lions’ of New Orleans jazz, guys who are around 50 now and who spent much of their careers outside the Crescent City: Wynton and Branford [Marsalis], Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison,” says Odell. “Like all of them, he both embraces his New Orleans roots and seeks constantly to evolve beyond them.”

“Troy is a great representative of what the best New Orleans musicians have always been about,” says former Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal. “He’s a great musician, and there is a lot of artistry in what he does.”

Blumenthal, who has been covering jazz for innumerable publications since 1969 — and is the recipient of two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes — adds that Andrews understands the importance of music, not just as an artistic statement but as entertainment.

“I think, going back to the early days in New Orleans, Armstrong and people like that, that’s really been a mark of New Orleans musicians: that they take the music seriously, but that they also saw it had great value to communicate with an audience and to provide transcendent moments for people, and really lift them out of whatever their personal struggle might be,” Blumenthal says.

“It’s all about the party here,” suggests Andrews. “It’s all about the party. We do take it very seriously. But we think that music is an escape not only for the musicians but for the audience. So smiling, having fun and bringing a good party vibe is always fun in my book.”

That carefree approach isn’t always well received in certain corners, particularly among prickly jazz purists who can be reluctant to accept change. Especially when it comes in an aggressive, unapologetic musical package such as Trombone Shorty. That cynicism tends to increase when an artist achieves crossover success.

“The typical approach is to draw a line between creative music and popular music,” says Blumenthal. “But I don’t think people in New Orleans look at it that way, honestly. I think that’s indicative of what molded [Andrews].”

Further complicating matters is that pesky four-letter word itself: jazz. Because he wields two horns onstage — he’s also a tremendous trumpet player — Trombone Shorty is often lumped in with the jazz idiom, even though that may be the least suitable label for his music.

“Jazz is one of the only genres of music that people have refused to let grow,” Andrews says. “I’m a part of the New Orleans jazz community. But I don’t know that people really understand what that means. I was born 26 years ago, and so much has changed. Dance music, European music, funk music, rock music, metal music. All that was here before I got here. And all I’m doing is being influenced by it.”

“This goes way back to the tension between jazz as popular music and jazz as an art form,” says Blumenthal. “People talk about it as ‘America’s music.’ To me, that’s what makes it American. I don’t think that the great music that was developed in this country was developed with a notion of ‘You have to treat us with gloves on because we’re so serious.’ There was always a blend, and it took a while for people to acknowledge that what was supposed to be ‘popular’ was also artistic. So we should be beyond that.”

Adds Odell, “In a town where there’s an endless demand for good music in those classically New Orleans categories, it takes guts as well as skill to create something as new as [Andrews’] music sounds — and to have it catch on.”

Brass balls aside, Trombone Shorty is really just doing what he’s always done. As a result, he’s emblematic of what may be the Big Easy’s greatest tradition: getting down and dirty.

“Everyone in New Orleans is an entertainer,” Andrews says. “New Orleans musicians, the ones I’m influenced by, never forgot that jazz was dance music. In New Orleans, if the audience is not moving, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue perform on Thursday, June 7, at 6 p.m. at the Waterfront Park Tent as part of the 2012 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. $25/30.,