by Jake Uitti
Trombone Shorty, playing Seattle on Sunday, August 20 as part of the annual Woodland Park Zoo series, is well known for his prowess on brass instruments. Famous for his skills on the trumpet, trombone and as a bandleader, Trombone Shorty (aka New Orleans’ Troy Andrews) has been fronting groups since he was a child. An affable, thoughtful and generous fellow, the musician recently began a summer tour showcasing the music from his hometown, including cuts off his new record, 2017’s Parking Lot Symphony. We had a chance to catch up with the virtuoso to ask him about the Big Easy, how his musical ear developed, his thoughts on his lineage and much more.
How’s the tour going, where are you at today?
I’m in – where am I? Newport, Rhode Island!
Do you have a day-to-day pre-show regimen while on tour?
Every night I look forward to hitting the stage in a new capacity. Every night I never know what to expect in terms of certain places, there’s always a different energy. But I’m especially looking forward to Red Rocks and the Hollywood Bowl this summer. Do I have a regimen? No, not for me – I’ve been playing since I was four. I never had the chance to develop any type of regimen or routine. This is all I know, all I’ve been doing.
What do you listen to while on the road?
Nothing. I was just talking to somebody else about this – in the last couple of months I haven’t been listening to music on a consistent basis. Maybe because we play every night and I’m always thinking music. My mind is always musically going somewhere. Sometimes I have to take a rest – because once I hear new music I might get excited and get my computer out and make music and end up not sleeping all day because I got so excited. So, no, I haven’t really been listening to anything – although I’ve checked out Bruno Mars recently [and a few other musicians]. But I haven’t really been listening to anything on a consistent basis.
New Orleans is rooted in so much music – and often it can be this dichotomous blend between great joy and extreme sorrow. Your new album, Parking Lot Symphony, is bookended by two dirges you wrote. How did these extremes shape your ear?
I’ve played hundreds of funerals in my life. Jazz funerals. And we can find joy in anything. If I’m playing a dirge, a dirge normally marks the most emotional part of the evening of the dead because it’s slow. On my album, I wanted to re-imagine a dirge but try some different chord structures and I wanted to play it a bit different. They’re not traditional dirges. They’re my interpretation if I had to write one in today’s time. But if you didn’t look at the name of the music and you just listened to it, you might think it’s a beautiful piece or just really emotional. Just playing that style growing up – at this age now, I’m still affected by it – it lives in me.
When I hear you play, your sound comes off almost narrative-oriented as opposed to lots of bops and hits, as if you’re speaking through the horn verbally. Is this your intention?
Absolutely. I can play a million notes, but that might not necessarily mean nothing to me. Whenever I try to solo, I’m playing what I’m thinking. Really, on this album, I tried to tap into my early childhood and how I used to play before I was trained, before I learned all the fundamentals and theory that I could in New Orleans. I was just trying to tap into the street sound I had as a natural musician. On this record, there are certain times and places to do bops and hits – but I like listening to guitar players. If you listen to blues players, you hear they’re telling a story. So whenever I’m playing, I try to come up with parts as I’m playing. I’m trying to play things that feel good to me, something I can hum. If someone is listening to a solo, they might not be a musician, but certain things might stick with them that they can hum. I’m definitely trying to tell a story. I grew up playing in brass bands and those players were always really soulful and tasteful with how they chose their notes. Sometimes a whole solo could be based off three notes.
What are the easy parts and the hard parts to telling a story with a horn?
It’s just like speaking. When someone is speaking to you from New Orleans, we’re all talking slow. We got an ease to our thing because we wanna make sure we get everything out. But at some point we get excited and start talking fast. And you can be like, ‘Wait, what?’ It’s the same thing with playing for me. If we play live, I might play fast stuff, like running your mouth, like I’m going for it. But I like to build solos; I like to build it to where you can tell there’s a beginning, middle and an end. That’s the only thing I know what’s going to be in my solos. But I can’t tell you what I’m gonna be talking about until it happens. I can get up there and play all day, but that might not be spiritually connected to me. It’s all about being spiritually connected to music with me when I’m playing.
Musically, it can be argued that you’ve done it all…
Man, I hope not! Not yet!
What lines are you trying to break and what lineages are you trying to carry on?
Only thing I’m doing is playing music. If I had to carry any lineage, it’d be my interpretation of representing New Orleans – whatever that may be. You know, Allen Toussaint represents a certain New Orleans music that’s very different than Fats Domino. If anything, I just want to continue to do my part with whatever style New Orleans music I’m playing and that my interpretation is part of the fabric that’s able to keep our lineage alive. When we say ‘New Orleans music,’ you can’t put your hand on it. It’s just a big gumbo. That’s the lineage I’m a part of and I have a responsibility to create my own music with the tools that have been laid down and the foundation that’s behind me. The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Louis Armstrong – all those people’s music is very different from each other. I’m finding my own vocabulary through what they gave me to work with. And hopefully, thirty years from now, some kid will be able to use me and create his own music and move it forward.
You’ve played at the White House a few times and you’ve also been the muffled voice of the teacher, Miss Othmar, and others on the Peanuts Movie. Is there something big or small that you look back on that you’re especially proud of?
You know, it’s crazy because I do a lot of things and it doesn’t hit me until years later that I actually really did it. So I think all those moments when I get to play my horn and get to do what I do is big for me. But in reality, playing for the president a few times, that was a dream come true. And to be playing on the same stage with people like Usher and Mic Jagger and Jeff Beck and Queen Latifa, people like that. It’s just unbelievable especially because I’m such a big fan of those folks. I was so excited to be with them on stage and then I opened my eyes and remembered I was at the White House – I opened my eyes and there was the First Lady and President Obama. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this has to be a dream!’ Being able to play on stage with Prince and with Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Foo Fighters. All of those moments are really big to me. I was a big fan of the Peanuts and Charlie Brown growing up. I’d watch it on TV. And my mom, who doesn’t know music, but she loves music – she always told me, ‘I want you to say my name in that horn.’ So I try to say her name. When I got the call for the Peanuts, I went back to my ten-year-old self and tried to make those sounds I remembered.
You’re around a lot of live music – what do you listen for when you hear a new horn player?
I listen to music as a whole. If I hear a player on the street in New Orleans and it touches my soul, then he or she has done their job. As long as I can smile and something makes me feel spiritually connected and moves my soul and I catch the chills, then that’s what it is. I’m not looking for anything technical. With music, to me, everybody has their own thing. Certain players might not be the best boppers or play a lot of fast lines, but they might be the greatest sound affect trumpet player or they can play a note for three minutes. For me, I always learn from those types of people. It’s like when you’re playing basketball, you want to be a great all around player, you don’t just want to be someone who can dunk.
You’re famous for playing both the trombone and the trumpet. Did you pick them up simply to traverse multiple octaves and a bigger range? Or is there more?
When I was younger, I had my own brass band. But we never had a full band. Sometimes we’d have two trombone players with no trumpet player, so I was always the person like, ‘Well, I’ll learn the trumpet and I’ll play.’ Then we got a trumpet player and we didn’t have a tuba player, so I learned how to play tuba. I was always the most outgoing of that group in my younger years, so that’s how that happened. Plus I had a bunch of instruments around the house so it was only natural I was going to pick up all those things. I was always the person who had an interest to do it, so I just stuck with it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
Featured image is a wiki commons photo