At five feet 11 the new cool face of New Orleans jazz is far from short, but Troy Andrews has got at least one part of his stage name right – Trombone Shorty blows so hard that he’ll make you wonder why there aren’t more people leading bands with this forceful wind instrument. He’s probably the jazz act most ripe for crossover success right now, mixing the horns with rock, funk and hip hop beats. He sings with real soul too, and he’s doing it all in northLondontonight.
His show here will be something of a step down, given that just last week he was performing at the White House in front of Barack Obama, alongside Mick Jagger, BB King, Buddy Guy and Booker T Jones. “I’ve been playing music since I was four. I don’t really get nervous,” the 26-year-old tells me. That’s handy.
In a town best known for grizzled performers like Dr John and The Neville Brothers (both acts Andrews has played with) he’s the hip young thing. A painting of him even graces the poster for this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – shades on, trombone pointing at the moon.
The gala Washington event, In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues, was prestigious enough to cause even this favourite son of New Orleans to miss Mardi Gras, but at least he can say he’s been in the President’s backing band – the smooth-voiced leader of the free world was persuaded to have a go at the blues standard Sweet Home Chicago. Plus Andrews got to sing the classic Louis Armstrong hit St James Infimary in a solo spot while the President and his wife joined in, front row centre. “It was wonderful,” he says.
Then it was suit off, back to the heavy gigging in sweaty clubs for Andrews, who reckons he played around 200 shows last year with his bandOrleans Avenueand will probably do 200 more in 2012. A glance at his diary shows concerts booked as far afield asMexico,SingaporeandAustralia, as well as plenty in his home town. “I like to play,” he explains simply. “Sometimes I don’t realise how many shows I’ve accepted until the end of the year when I’m like, [wearily] ‘Oh my God’.”
He’s become an important figure far beyond theNew Orleansmusic scene, a world steeped in its own jazz tradition that he’s updated and mixed with different sounds for global appeal. He isn’t one for Big Easy cliche – he wants to take the traditions and play around. “I don’t get any pressure to be more traditional. Everyone knows I grew up playing with some of the best traditional musicians there are. I know the music, I’ve paid my dues. But as a kid I was hearing everything, all different styles. When I put my band together I tried to put it all in there.”
Last year’s second solo album, For True, was a Billboard Jazz chart number one that features vinyl scratching sounds on Buckjump, smoking soul on Then There was You, fiery rock guitar from guest pals Jeff Beck and Lenny Kravitz and of course, more heavy horns than a pack of rhinos. As a singer he’s worthy of such elevated company too, though he’s still happy to hand over the microphone to guests as varied as rap-rock bad boy Kid Rock and female soul singer Ledisi.
Yet his music is still soaked in the atmosphere of his home town. As a modern day figurehead for the city, of course he’s appeared as himself in multiple episodes of Treme (pronounced Truh-may), the inspiring TV series by the makers of The Wire aboutNew Orleansin the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Series two is on satellite in theUKnow. “It’s definitely the most accurate portrayal ofNew Orleanswe’ve had ever. They’ve really done their homework,” he says. I mention that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show that seems to love music so much, endlessly lingering on musicians in action instead of advancing the meandering plot, and he agrees. “It’s really amazing. TV doesn’t normally treat music like that, especially this type of music.”
Treme focuses on the rebuilding after Katrina rather than the 2005 disaster itself. Andrews is similar in his outlook, saying: “I lost a bunch of stuff. My house took about seven feet of water. I was in the same position as everybody else,” before moving on quickly to talk of the recovery. “It’s taken a few years but we’re getting a lot more people coming back. Everything seems to be cool right now. It’ll still take a while for us to be back 100 per cent but I feel we’re at about 80 per cent now.” He played with U2 and Green Day at the reopening of the New Orleans Superdome, the football stadium in which many people sheltered from the storm, in 2006.
Up to the point the hurricane struck, his youth sounds pretty delightful. At four he picked up the trombone because older brother James (also a bandleader who has played with Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie) was already learning the trumpet.Troyused to have to play it with a trumpet mouthpiece because the trombone mouthpiece was too big. James gave him his nickname because his instrument was so much taller than he was – now much taller, he’s still stuck with it.
Learning so young didn’t make him a prodigy, he says. That’s just what people do down there. “A lot of people start at a very young age. It’s not pressure from the parents. You usually have a family member that plays music and you’re always around them, so you end up with an instrument yourself. I’ve got little cousins right now playing and I don’t even know who taught them how to play. It’s just in the water here.” Andrews has better genes than most though, being the grandson of Jesse Hill, singer of theNew Orleansclassic Ooh Poo Pah Doo.
He started his own brass band when he was just “six or seven” with other kids in the neighbourhood. If anyone was missing he would play their parts, so he also learned the trumpet and played tuba before the age of 10 (Tuba Shorty, anybody?). He also plays trumpet, keyboard and drums on the latest album. He says that it’s unusual to be a trombone-playing bandleader – “They’re normally at the back behind the drums” – but he was at an advantage because “there are a million other trumpet players all wanting to do the same thing”.
He toured the world in his brother’s band as a teenager before doing it again in Lenny Kravitz’s band at 19. “He’s my mentor, like a big brother or an uncle, making sure I stay on the right path. We still work together. I talked to him just the other day. He’s a great guy.”
This exposure to the rock world must have helped his showmanship and polished his own star quality. “I stepped back every night and watched him perform. I love the way he’s able to control an arena, and that’s the type of attitude I like to bring to whatever I’m playing now. I play as if I’m in front of 60,000 people every night.” There won’t be quite that many in the Garage tonight – more like 600 – but in close proximity Trombone Shorty will blow you away.