Smooth? You have no idea. Powerful? You had to be there. Funky? Terminally. Witty? Can’t have funk without wit. Charismatic? Consistently.
Trombone Shorty raised all those questions, then answered them resoundingly, when he delivered the kickoff for this year’s Tri-C JazzFest Thursday night, generating wavealongs, singalongs and joyous boogaloo at the House of Blues. Several hundred fans packed the dance floor as Shorty and his band brought the mongrel musical spirit of New Orleans to Cleveland.
Shorty, whose real name is Troy Andrews, is a tall, buff guy who plays fantastic trumpet, fabulous trombone (hey, “Trumpet Shorty” doesn’t work, does it?) and sings. He dances. He plays drums. He writes sexy tunes that stuff the off-kilter, infectious meter known as Second Line into arrangements showcasing the baritone saxophone of Dan Oestreicher and the tenor sax of Clarence Slaughter, the hard-rock guitar of Pete Murano and Shorty’s distinctive brassiness. Driving the assault: bassist Mike Ballard, drummer Joey Peebles and conga man Dwayne Williams. Versatile? Must have left that out.
The show lasted almost two hours, and almost every song was a knockout. There were fast tunes in which Shorty sang like James Brown and moved like Michael Jackson. There was “Something Beautiful,” a pretty ballad that detoured into hard rock, then regained its soul footing toward the end. And there were homages to New Orleans, where Shorty’s group and The Stooges Brass Band, the more clownish opening act, come from.
The first was Allen Toussaint’s knowing “On Your Way Down,” slinky and rueful and seductive. The others were “St. James Infirmary” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” indelibly rendered eons ago by Shorty’s key inspiration, Louis Armstrong.
Shorty transformed those chestnuts from the hoary to the exultant. At one point in “Sunny,” after a shredder guitar solo by Murano, he held a note so long, you feared he’d have an aneurysm. Cheeks puffed Dizzy Gillespie-style, Shorty went on for several minutes, ending higher than he began. Corny? Sure. But dazzling.
The band played hard, the sound was crystalline, the pyrotechnics wonderfully entertaining. Shorty’s got everything down. Did I mention that in the encore, everyone exchanged instruments without missing a beat?
Trombone Shorty’s “Backatown” debut album is a winner. Seeing him and his band in action is the clincher.