Trombone Shorty throws a bit of everything into his feel-good musical gumbo


Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews performs at Wolf Trap in August. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

For a man who drags a trombone around, Troy Andrews has a gift for fitting in.

Fans know the 27-year-old New Orleans jazz-funk alchemist as Trombone Shorty. Maybe they’ve seen him share a stage with Dr. John. Or with Southern rap architect Mannie Fresh. Or with the beardy country bros in Zac Brown Band. On a blissfully temperate August night out at Wolf Trap, Andrews and his bandmates are preparing to warm up for Grace Potter, a high-heeled roots-rock singer from Vermont who stamps out hearts like cigarette butts.

Andrews isn’t sweating it.

“If it’s a rock concert, we can do that,” Andrews says backstage, more congenial than cocky. “If it’s a funk concert, we can do that. We’re able to play all different styles. . . . That’s what we do in New Orleans every day. To me, that’s normal.”

He sounds just as comfortable on his new album, “Say That To Say This,” out Tuesday. The 10-song disc was produced by R&B singer Raphael Saadiq, frequently evokes Andrews’s rock hero, Lenny Kravitz, and includes a collaboration with New Orleans funk idols the Meters, who reunited at Andrews’s request.

But as the border-blind bandleader throws more ingredients into the mix, his songs pose an inherent question: When are you making gumbo, and when are you making mud?

Andrews says he’s busy wrestling another aesthetic conundrum: He’s perpetually searching for new ways to make audiences feel good. It’s an approach that sounds an awful lot like pandering to the masses, but to Andrews, it’s rooted in decades of tradition.

“In New Orleans, we celebrate everything,” he says. “It’s probably the only place you’ll see people dancing in a funeral home. So I’ve been brought up in a culture where the music is an escape for everyone. No matter what kinds of problems we might be going through, or what kinds of problems the world might be going through, music is the place where we can all get along. We can all jam.”

He grew up jamming in a highly musical family. His grandfather was the R&B singer Jessie Hill. His older brother and mentor, trumpet player James Andrews, was the first person to take him on the road; he was 4 years old. They called him Trombone Shorty because his horn was taller than he was.

When asked to pinpoint the moment he first remembers being taller than his horn, Andrews flashes on a concert somewhere in the Caribbean in his early teens. He’d been up late playing video games the night before and was using his trombone as a crutch as he tried to keep his eyelids open before the gig.

After high school, he joined Kravitz’s horn section, where he gained a new tutor and a taste for rock-and-roll. Considering Andrews’s singing on “Say That To Say This,” he also seems to have taken detailed notes on Kravitz’s use of vocal harmony. “He’s probably the [vocalist] I’ve spent the most time listening to,” Andrews admits. “And he still gives me advice, too. I’ll call him at 4 in the morning, and he’ll wake up.”

After his days on the road with Kravitz, Andrews began to forge his own sound with his band, Orleans Avenue, which currently includes bassist Mike Ballard, guitarist Pete Murano and drummer Joey Peebles. Purists were reluctant to see Trombone Shorty grow up.

“People were heckling me,” Andrews says. “‘Play some jazz! Play some jazz!’ I was like, ‘You don’t really know what I do.’ . . . At the end of the day, I’m a New Orleans musician. Whatever that means.”

Press him on that, and Andrews says it means keeping his ears open wide. On tour this summer, Orleans Avenue has spent a few sound checks jamming on riffs by industrial-rock band Ministry. “Heavy, heavy, heavy,” Andrews describes it. “And fast!” Back home, the bandleader has made a point of catching concerts by rap superstar Lil Wayne and California punk mainstays NOFX. “I was ready to get in the mosh pit and everything,” he says of the punk gig. “But I didn’t want to bust my lip.”

Still, his biggest influence as a singer, songwriter, horn player and showman seems to be the churning Crescent City that raised him.

“In New Orleans, people are still influenced by one another,” Andrews says. “You got these bands that play every week on Frenchmen Street, and on their breaks, they might go see the reggae band that’s right next door. You might get the musicians from the reggae band to sit in with the brass musicians. Everyone is having fun. . . . We want to bring that joy to people, and bring joy to ourselves by seeing people dancing and having fun.”

An hour or so later, he’s up on the Wolf Trap stage trying to achieve that. It isn’t instantaneous. But one by one, seated fans upright themselves, shaking their limbs to a punchy vocabulary of rhythms.

Andrews’s singing is stronger and more fluid than it is on his recordings. He says he’s been studying the vocal loop-de-loops of various gospel and R&B singers. It shows.

And when a horn is pressed to his lips, he shoots flames, occasionally indulging in a few showstoppy tricks, spitting out staccato notes like a lawn sprinkler or bleating an elongated phrase like a distant ambulance coming to the rescue.

Rows of converts dance and smile. Andrews smiles back.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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