Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews' new album, Backatown (Verve Forecast April 20), is the work of a rare artist who can draw both the unqualified respect of jazz legends and deliver a high-energy rock show capable of mesmerizing international rock stars and audiences alike. With such an unprecedented mix of rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop and soul, he had to create his own name to describe his signature sound: Supafunkrock! Andrews is the kind of player who comes along maybe once in a generation, and Backatown is the latest, clearest proof that his artistry is as singular as his raw talent.
The album title comes from the locals’ term for the area of New Orleans that includes the Tremé [pronounced Tre-MAY] neighborhood in the city's 6th Ward, where Troy was born and raised—getting his nickname at four years old when he was observed by his older brother James marching in a street parade wielding a trombone twice as long as the kid was high. The cultural backdrop of the Tremé—the oldest black neighborhood in the U.S.—is at the very root of Troy’s music, on top of which he’s built his own sound. The streetwise, gritty feel of the term underscores the difference between the stereotype of the New Orleans jazz musician and what this audacious young artist and his cohorts are going for, and pulling off.
Equally adept on trombone and trumpet, Andrews plays a variety of other instruments as well. He’s applied the same skill sets and fierce discipline to his vocal instrument, to soulful effect, as the album demonstrates. Surrounding Andrews is his band, Orleans Avenue—Mike Ballard on bass, Pete Murano on guitar, Joey Peebles on drums, Dwayne Williams on percussion and Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax—virtuosos every one.
What makes this record such a kick in the head is that the band, working with producer Ben Ellman of Galactic, has managed to bottle the 200-proof intensity of their devastating live performances, which have earned Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue a rabid and ever-growing following almost entirely by way of word of mouth—Backatown is the band’s first recording to get a national release. Like their shows—which have been known to run for hours at an energy level that few others could sustain—the album turns on a rare combination of virtuosity and high-energy, party-down intensity.
All but one of the 14 tracks are originals, the lone cover being the Allen Toussaint classic “On Your Way Down,” with the legend himself sitting in on piano. “Don’t get me wrong, we got it goin’ on in New Orleans,” Toussaint said of Andrews. “He’s just better.” Andrews was delighted when Toussaint told him he liked this version of the much-recorded song. Other contributors include fellow Louisiana homeboy Marc Broussard singing with Andrews on “Right to Complain” and Troy’s former bandleader Lenny Kravitz, who plays guitar and sings backing vocals on “Something Beautiful.” (Troy recently returned the favor, spending the better part of a week in the Bahamas playing on Kravitz’s upcoming LP.) Charles Smith, who plays synth bass on “Quiet as Kept” and the title track, is, like Andrews, a graduate of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the seed bed for such jazz stalwarts as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. and Nicholas Payton. Smith was Orleans Avenue’s original drummer, and still sometimes sits in on keys. “All my guests on the record are my favorite players,” Andrews points out.
“In our band we have people from different cultural backgrounds who listen to all kinds of different styles,” Andrews explains, “and when we get into our studio in New Orleans—we call it the Gumbo Room—we throw it all in and see how we can make it work as one thing, so that it’s not so left-field. We just try to make everything fit, you know, and I think that had a major effect on the record. We just banged a bunch of things out to see how they could work. We weren’t afraid to approach a bunch of different musical styles—rock music, R&B, whatever—just because there’s a horn in front. We just did what we do, and over time we developed something fresh. Making this record was a learning experience for us because, for the earlier records, we did them in like three days; this time we stayed in there for months in between tour dates, writing, picking things apart and reconstructing them. Ben knew what we needed to do, so we just followed his lead and he got it out of us.”
Exemplifying the diverse backgrounds of the players, Murano cut his teeth on rock guitar before becoming swept up in jazz while attending Loyola, and he brings it all to bear on the band’s genre-obliterating music, alternating between sweet soul, driving funk grooves and rock riffage.
“Pete knows I love power chords, and if I could play them on my trombone, I’d do it all day,” says Troy, who’s wildly eclectic in his tastes, in stark contrast to many of his fellow jazz-trained virtuosos. “Jazz musicians can be close-minded,” he says, “and I didn’t want to be one of those musicians that kept recycling things that had been done already, because then I wouldn’t be able to grow. The sound of the group just developed naturally out of everybody’s personal taste. Coming from the Tremé, all I knew was fun music and dancing, so I wanted to be able to get back to that with this band and take it to another level. I always wanted to play in front of my peers, and to do something that would keep me interested as well as keeping the audience interested.”
When Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2006, Andrews was on tour with Lenny Kravitz. “I was on a break at that time, so I was able to help my family get out before going back on tour for another year or so,” he recalls. “Half of the guys in the band were still in college, and when I got back everybody was done with school, so we were able to take this thing on the road. I couldn’t have been in a better situation than to be with someone of Lenny’s caliber at that point in my career.”
As for how he got this prestigious gig, Troy says, “We had a mutual friend in New Orleans named Sidney Torres, and Lenny called him to say he was looking for some new horn players. Sydney said, ‘I have this kid who’s 18.’ Lenny said, ‘I’m lookin’ for somebody with soul—how can an 18-year-old kid have soul?’ But Sydney convinced him to fly me to Miami, I played for him and he kept me there. He said, ‘You’re in the band, and you’ve gotta work your butt off.’ So I had to learn like 20 years of music. To be able to play in that band and gain so much knowledge was huge. My sister told me that me playing with that band was like Kobe Bryant going straight from high school to the pros.
“It was a mind-opening experience,” he says of playing with Kravitz and his band, “because coming from jazz I was doing a lot of improvising, and with him I learned to play songs just like the record, which you need great discipline for. When I brought that discipline back to the band, everything took off from there. Also, from seeing my idol control 15-16,000 people every night in arenas, I was able to take that approach and apply it to my own performances.”
Kravitz clearly had his head turned by the youngster’s rare gift, recently lauding him again as “a genius player. He’s got nothing but personality, he plays his ass off and he’s a beautiful human being.”
Troy started a handful of the songs on his laptop while on the road with Orleans Avenue. “I wrote ‘One Night Only’ on the computer as a rap track, ’cause I do some hip-hop beats just for fun on the side. I liked the music so much that I brought it to the band to see what it would sound like with live instruments. We did it, and it was so good that I thought maybe I could transform a bunch of these things that I’d just come up with as rough ideas.”
But most of the material, including “Where Y’At” and “Something Beautiful,” took shape out of onstage jamming, with new ideas coalescing out of improvised sections of existing pieces. Everything then got the ‘Gumbo Room’ treatment, with Ellman lending his objective ear during tracking.
The album opens with “Hurricane Season,” which subtly and wordlessly but vividly evokes the state of mind of New Orleans residents. “After Katrina, whenever a tropical storm approaches the city, everybody gets nervous, and they find different ways to try to get their minds off it,” he explains. “That might mean goin’ to see some second-line music, and in the song we try to conjure up the Rebirth Brass Band playin’ in the street right before a hurricane is comin’ our way. So it’s not really about Katrina, it’s about the experience of everybody’s nerves getting rattled whenever a tropical storm’s comin’, and packin’ up and leavin’ the city.”
The band’s smoldering take of “On Your Way Down,” which follows, was chosen because “It has a New Orleans vibe, which is what we were going for at the beginning of the disc, and it just felt right,” Andrews explains. “But we switched it up a little bit.”
Kravitz first heard a demo of “Something Beautiful,” which had been conceived onstage out of a wordless vocal vamp from Andrews, while Troy was in the Bahamas playing on his mentor’s next record. “I was listening to some of my stuff,” Troy recalls, “and he said, ‘Wow, who is that?’ and I was like ‘That’s me.’ Lenny said, ‘I’m gonna have to get on there.’ For the whole week I was there, he kept singin’ it, so I asked him to play a guitar solo and sing some background on it.”
Nothing that leads up to it quite prepares the listener for “Fallin’,” a silky, sexy soul ballad in the tradition of Marvin Gaye (whose “Let’s Get It On” is frequently on the band's set lists). People would tell me, “You’re so high-energy during your show; you need a good ballad to catch the ladies’ attention,” says Troy. “I wrote the music on my laptop and sent it to a good friend of mine, P.J. Morton. I explained what I was feeling, and he wrote the words to it. When he sent it back, I was like, ‘Wow, you were livin’ through me.’ I’ve been influenced by soul music all my life. My mom was a big Marvin Gaye fan, so that’s all I heard around the house as a kid. And in the last couple of years we’ve been crossing paths with Al Green at different festivals. I was always nervous about singing in that style, but I realized that in order to get where I want to be, I had to study the greats, or at least steal some things from them. I really worked on my vocals for this record.”
Andrews started early, learning how to play drums and what he remembers as “the world’s smallest trumpet” at the age of three. By the time he reached six, this prodigy was playing trumpet and trombone in a jazz band led by his older brother James, himself a trumpet player of local renown who has been called “Satchmo of the Ghetto.” Not long afterward, Troy formed his own band with some other musically inclined kids from Tremé, including current bandmate Williams, and they became regulars at Jackson Square, playing for spare change and pulling in as much as $400 apiece on a particularly hopping weekend. During a visit to a small New Orleans club, Bono and the Edge happened upon the trombone player, who was then 12. “We walked in and the place was jumping,” the Edge recalled. “There was this little funk band, but they were all playing brass instruments, which is something I’d never heard of or seen before. We were just mesmerized by him. I ended up with Bono, after a few tequilas, dancing with a bunch of girls on the top of the bar. It was one of those sort of nights.”
Troy’s rarefied talents and immense promise inspired the organizers of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to pick him as the subject of the fest’s annual Congo Square official poster. In 2009, at 23, he became the youngest artist ever to be pictured on a poster—the next youngest was Wynton Marsalis, who was featured at age 41. Said Marsalis of Andrews, “Shorty possesses the rarest combination of talent, technical capability and down-home soul. I’m his biggest fan.”
The press has been blown away as well. Checking out a Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue performance, New York Times lead music critic Jon Pareles observed that the front man “flaunted the presence of a rock star... He played trombone with almost combative postures.” And Rolling Stone’s David Fricke observed that Andrews, “looking like a street-parade P. Diddy in a sharp white suit, made true heavy metal with his horn in a thrilling recasting of AC/DCs ‘Back in Black.’”
When asked about his favorite songs on Backatown, Andrews says, “Actually, I’m quite comfortable with the whole record. Being a musician, I’m never, ever comfortable with a record, because as soon as it’s finished I hear something I could change, but not in this case. It’s cool for me, ’cause I’m not on there takin’ an eight-minute solo or anything like that. I think it’s a well-rounded record, with songs that can catch everybody’s attention.
“This is a dream come true,” Troy says of the anticipation building in hip circles for the release of Backatown. “I’m super-excited about this record, and I can’t wait for people to hear it—because this record is the defining moment of our sound.”
Troy Andrews’ dream is now a musical reality of potentially game-changing significance, as he and his band prepare to shift the musical landscape in a thrilling new direction.
After performing one of 2010's closing sets at Jazzfest—but this time with a smokin’ new album in hand—Andrews and the band will hit the summer festival circuit. Starting at the Hollywood Bowl during the Playboy Jazz Festival, then heading back to Bonnaroo and winding through High Sierra Music Fest, as well as a plethora of jam band, blues, rock and jazz festivals across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, Andrews’ travels are virtually guaranteed to build a huge new international following for this singular new artist.
Listen to Something Beautiful, the new single featuring Lenny Kravitz