By the time he was 4, Trombone Shorty had already earned his nickname for toting a chunk of brass bigger than he was through the Treme neighborhood streets in New Orleans. As the years passed, that 'bone became only one weapon in his formidable arsenal. Today, the 27-year-old known by the government name Troy Andrews also plays trumpet like Dizzy Gillespie, triple-tonguing and hitting stratospheric, brass-buckling heights when he's not crooning soulfully like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder.
Backed by a band of fresh-faced all-stars who look like they just started shaving last week but play like funk-soaked veterans, Shorty and company whip audiences into raucous Mardi Gras celebrants — swaying, sweating and shouting to his brassy beats. Now he's bringing that energy to the Neighborhood Theatre on Nov. 14.
Shorty's on the road promoting his latest album, Say That to Say This, which came out on Sept. 9. "People in the community, they're telling you a story, then out of the blue they'll say, 'I say that to say this,'" he explains. "That just means, 'I'm saying all that just to get to this one point.'" The point here is brassy funk, with an added dose of old school R&B from co-producer Raphael Saadiq.
Saadiq's sound pays homage to the Marvin Gaye/Al Green school of smooth soul with a funky bottom-end, backed with churchy three-part harmonies. Shorty met Saadiq in 2008 when both artists played San Francisco's Outside Lands Festival, but Shorty says he was already a big fan before that. "I thought it would be a perfect match with his knowledge of where the music comes from and his imagination to move it forward," Shorty says of the collaboration. "And I just thought that was the same way I think, and he can enhance that for me."
Shorty's own musical knowledge came mostly from the road. After studying at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, he toured the world in 2005, at 18, in Lenny Kravitz's band, before putting together his own outfit, Orleans Avenue in 2009 as a trumpet and trombone player.
Shorty's last release, 2011's For True, was more jazz-oriented, riding at No. 1 for three months on the contemporary jazz charts. However, there's still R&B scattered throughout, including Ledisi's soulful ballad "Then There Was You." Even "Encore," despite Warren Haynes Southern-fried guitar, sounds like Prince-flavored R&B. Shorty's debut, 2010's Grammy-nominated Backatown, features Allen Toussaint on "On Your Way Down" with a Little Feat treatment and a smidgen of funk, but the album is still in R&B territory. His duet with Kravitz on "Something Beautiful" reeks of Stevie Wonder, vocally and instrumentally.
Shorty has always sprinkled R&B into live shows — from Gaye's "Let's Get it On" to Fats Domino's "Whole Lotta Lovin'" and Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." His vocals in live shows and on the Meters' "Be My Lady" on Say That sound like Wonder, a compliment that flusters him. "Oh Lord. I don't know if I could even be in the same sentence with him," Shorty says. "But he's definitely a big influence. He's got acrobatic vocal ability and I attempt to do that."
For Say That, Shorty also reunited the Meters, a feat nobody else, including the band members themselves, had been able to do. "They're all like my uncles," Shorty says of getting the group to redo their hit, "Be My Lady" from 1977's New Directions, with him. "I was just able to call 'em up, told them what I wanted and they said, 'If you can get the other guys to do it, I would do it, but if you can't get the other guys, I would still love to be able to be a part of it.' All of 'em said that, and from that it was a go."
Now that Say That has been released, Shorty admits to never being comfortable with a record, always thinking of something else he could have done. Instead of beating himself up about what he could have or should have done, he redirects that energy on stage, remixing and rearranging songs to make himself happy.
For a halftime gig at the New Orleans Pelicans' season opener, Shorty rearranges Say That's opening cut, "Fire and Brimstone." "My drummer played a beat in soundcheck and we both looked at each other like, 'Why didn't we do that on the record?'" Shorty says. "We're gonna play the song with a different groove we played by mistake."
Despite any misgivings about past recordings, he's comfortable with this album and particularly fond of the song "Shortyville." "It reminds me of growing up in New Orleans and playing in the street parades and people dancing on cars and on top of houses and grocery stores," Shorty says of the brassy, strutting funkaton on which he plays drums, trumpet and trombone.
On "Get the Picture," he lays the funk out in a style that blends the streets of Treme with the funk of former James Brown bandleader/trombonist Fred Wesley. "I always wanted to be a part of the JB horns," Shorty admits, adding that he'd like to do a tour with Wesley and Maceo Parker. "I wouldn't have to work that hard," he adds. "I'd just sit back and keep my tape recorder goin' so I could steal some things from Fred."
Wesley paid Shorty the ultimate compliment after a studio gig together — "If I die today or tomorrow, I know the trombone will be OK."