Trombone Shorty: “Backatown”
And then, seemingly out of the blue, Troy Andrews was everywhere. In 2010 alone, the 24-year-old horn master from the Big Easy, who performs with his Orleans Avenue band as Trombone Shorty, won a recurring role on HBO’s Nawlins-set series Treme, even as he continued to pop up in supporting slots for fellow Crescent City acts like Galactic and released his own national debut as a bandleader, the tremendously soulful and energetic Backatown. That would surely qualify as a busy year for anybody– and it’s not even halfway over!– but to say that Shorty’s stock is abruptly on the rise would be to miss the larger picture. Really, Andrews has been a prolific musician literally since he was a kid– he became a bandleader at age six– and he’s been a New Orleans stalwart for years now. Meanwhile, the profile of the city itself– and, crucially, its music– really has been on the rise; if Treme is all about a city struggling to its feet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the recent musical outpourings from New Orelans have been more about a spirit of resolve, endurance, and celebration– a spirit that runs through recent, high-watermark albums like Allen Toussaint’s historically-minded The Bright Mississippi and Galactic’s futuristic Ya-Ka-May, to say nothing of Andrews’ new record.
By the way: Toussaint appears on one cut from Backatown, just as he did on Ya-Ka-May, and while he doesn’t lend vocal support here like he did on that album, he does get credit as songwriter and pianist; the track in question is a cover of his classic “On Your Way Down,” a tune that was most famously performed by Little Feat but has also been recorded by Toussaint himself and, in 2006, by Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Andrews’ version dances circles around all the others; it’s a loose, funky groove, Toussaint’s piano lines and what sounds like a flute flirting with a dynamite, in-the-pocket rhythm that makes past incarnations of the song sound leaden by comparison. It’s a fairly radical reinvention of a beloved tune, but Toussaint’s presence here seems to signify his approval.
It’s also the perfect entry point for an album that swings, struts, swaggers, and never once strays from its irresistible groove. The other songs are all Andrews originals, but they’re likely to be standards some day. Some are vocal performances, many are instrumentals, and all are rather unclassifiable fusions of funk, soul, R&B, rock, and yes, some jazz– though calling this a New Orleans jazz album would be a bit of a misnomer. Really, it’s tough, streetwise pop music in the best sense of the term– the music of the corner, vibrant and alive, owing less to traditional notions of jazz than to New Orleans line music, the kind of thing you’d hear coming down the way from a Mardi Gras parade or from an impromptu jam session on the streets.
Which is to say, of course, that the music has its roots in tradition, but not the tradition of history books– a tradition that’s still evolving, still alive and in the moment, which Backatown certainly is. The album is named after a neighborhood in the Treme area, the oldest black community in the nation, which shows that Andrews is mindful of his roots, but if he’s respectful of where this music comes from, he’s not beholden to it, sounding much more interested in where it’s going. The set was produced by Ben Ellison of Galactic, and while it’s got some of the trappings of a music hall, the attitude seems to come more from hip-hop, and the sound that results is endlessly groovy and crackling with vitality and urgency.
Highlights? Just pick one. The songs with big-name guest performers are likely to get the most attention, not just the Toussaint cover but also the appearance of Lenny Kravitz’ guitar work on “Something Beautiful,” a sort of neo-soul number by way of rock balladry, as well as a duet between Andrews and Marc Broussard on the rock-oriented “Right to Complain.” But the instrumental numbers provide the album’s real meat– whether it’s the monstrous funk opener “Hurricane Season,” a sort of New Orleans march for the P-Funk set, or the metallic rock of “Suburbia.” These are deft works of celebratory, forward-thinking fusion, the music of the corner meeting the music of the hall, popular music made by a guy whose definition of the term is big enough to incorporate hip-hop and funk and jazz as mere matters of inflection, not separate entities that belong on separate streets. Backatown is profound musical integration, an inclusive and exciting set from a bandleader who, at 24, can already be called visionary.