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Interview: Trombone Shorty on refining Supafunkrock, the future of jazz, and playing for Obama

 

The phrase “musical prodigy” is rarely used these days. It could be out of respect to the legends of the past, or perhaps it’s because there are few artists truly deserving of the title. However, the phrase could be used to describe New Orleans musician Troy Andrews. While the rest of us were learning the letters of the alphabet in kindergarten, the man now popularly known as Trombone Shorty was leading bands in The Big Easy and causing a rhythmic ruckus. Now at the age of 30, he has an accomplished resume that rivals artists who are twice his age.

On Wednesday, February 3, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue will be bringing their brand of funk, rock, and jazz to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, with an opening set from Los Angeles blues act The Record Company. Ahead of a show that’s going to have you jumping out of your seat and cutting a rug into multiple patterns, Vanyaland had a chat with Trombone Shorty about starting out at such a young age, working with celebrated musicians, putting out a children’s book, playing The White House and the simmering musical gumbo that is New Orleans.

Rob Duguay: You started being a bandleader at the age of six while growing up in New Orleans. How were you treated by your contemporaries at the time? Did you deal with any jealousy or animosity from others?

 
 

Trombone Shorty: No, not really. Maybe when it came to competition between me and other kids but there was never anything like that in the group I was in. I taught all the members in my band how to play the songs I wrote and I showed them by example. We weren’t able to communicate musically during that time but I taught the drummer how to play the parts and I taught the trumpet players and the tuba players as well. They all kind of looked up to me when I put my band together at that young age. There were some of the other neighborhood kids that had bands and they probably had some jealousy but other than that everybody just played along with each other. During that time for the most part I actually switched from trombone to playing a tuba so I was the leader of the band but I wasn’t a lead person in the band and I think it helped out a little bit.

That’s interesting how you lead your band at one point playing tuba as the base of the sound rather than doing what you do now and being up front with a trombone.

I was playing the trombone first and we didn’t have a tuba player, so I learned to play the tuba and then I stepped in the back. The trumpet players and the trombone players are naturally the leaders of the band on stage and I think that’s probably why there was no jealousy because I let my band members lead the band. We were short of members so I took over that position.

 
 

You’ve collaborated with the likes of Jeff Beck, CeeLo Green, Mark Ronson, Galactic, Rod Stewart and LeAnn Rimes just to name a few. Out of all the people you’ve worked with, who would you say has challenged you the most?

With the names that you’ve just mentioned, all of them are different musically so each situation I got into I was prepared for the challenge because I listen to all styles of music. I’m a big fan of music in general and I try to at least dabble into as many styles as I can so when these opportunities come up I know a bit about the style of music that’s being played. Every situation is challenging because everyone is strong at what they do and what type of music they play and I have to adapt to that.

Adapting is absolutely key when it comes to playing with anyone who doesn’t perform the same type of music you play. Are there any artists out there today who you haven’t collaborated with that you would like to work with in the future?

 
 

Yeah, there’s a few people. I’d like to work with Jay-Z, Nine Inch Nails, there’s this singer Elle Varner who does R&B. Kendrick Lamar is another one, there are a lot of great young musicians and rappers that are doing different things that I’m very interested in. I love their music and I would like to be a part of that, see how we could collaborate and create something new.

It would be pretty cool if you and Kendrick Lamar did an album together. Recently you put out a Trombone Shorty children’s book. What made you want to do something like this and what’s the story behind the book?

I was talking to Bill Taylor, who’s a friend of my father’s and also runs my foundation, one day and I was telling him some of my stories as a young musician and some of the things I learned from the older musicians. He started to jot some notes down and then he said, “We should write a book.” Writing a book was nowhere on my mind, music is always at the forefront of my mind and trying to get better as a musician. I started to tell him more stories and he kept on writing them down. We were just talking about some of the things I could remember when I was coming up as a young musician around six and seven years old playing in New Orleans and different things. We thought it would be fun to let the kids know some real life stories and it worked out well. I’m very proud of the book, it was written with love and some of the kids today that read it don’t even know that I’m a real person. They think I’m their age and when they see me live they can’t believe it. It’s great when it all comes full circle when they see me perform after reading the book and knowing the stories,

Last year you got to perform twice at The White House for President Obama. How was the experience and what is Barack Obama like in person?

 
 

The experience was great. Last time I played there was my third time or fourth time playing at The White House. It’s always a tremendous experience to be able to play there because you get to play for the President and you get to collaborate with some artists that you may not think of collaborating with. It was just great to be on that stage, be among some of the greatest musicians in the world and be able to play in front of the President and the First Lady. Barack is a pretty cool person, very laid back and a genuinely nice human being.

That’s great to hear. Coming from a jazz background, you call your sound Supafunkrock. It’s a sound that incorporates funk, hip hop and rock dynamics. Outside of jazz, which artists influenced you to fuse all of these musical elements together to form the sound of you and Orleans Avenue?

I grew up in jazz because of New Orleans but I’ve played different styles of music since I was a kid. My influences range from people like Lenny Kravitz to Michael Jackson, James Brown, Ray Charles, Foo Fighters, Zac Brown Band, Dave Matthews Band, Lil’ Wayne, Master P, Juvenile, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John. The list goes on so my style sounds the way that it does because I’ve been influenced by music that’s outside of what I grew up doing.

It’s amazing how you meld everything together and it all has a distinct flow. You bring all of these musical elements into one song and it all comes out perfectly.

 
 

Thanks.

Jazz in the 21st century has artists like yourself, Robert Glasper, Joshua Redman and others playing jazz but also pushing the boundaries of the genre. In 2016, what do you think the current state of jazz is?

I have no idea. I love Robert Glasper, I’ve met him and talked to him a few times. I think the people you’ve mentioned are just trying to move music forward and they’re influenced by jazz, experimental and improvisational music. Coming from New Orleans everything is just a musical gumbo so it’s hard for us to just focus on one style of music when you’re in a city like that. To be honest, I’m not sure and I don’t really know.

TROMBONE SHORTY & ORLEANS AVENUE + THE RECORD COMPANY :: Wednesday, February 3 at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, 684 Purchase St. in New Bedford, MA :: 8 p.m., all ages, $35 to $45 :: Advance tickets