Same old same old from the New Orleans brass phenom, but a pretty good same old blending '70s soul and brass band swagger.
You should get out to see Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews) in concert. It’s all groove and brass, people dancing, a sincere and inspiring mixture of New Orleans brass band bravado, soulful funk, and rock sizzle. There is something surefire about it: the punch of the horns, the showmanship, the rhythm section knowing just how to move you, and Andrews himself confident and fiery as a soloist and a singer. The audience is a cool thing: old and young, jam band fans but also some jazz folks, people who love New Orleans authenticity and people who just want a great groove.
For me, the music that brought these people together was captured almost perfectly by Andrews' major label debut, Backatown, where the brass blasts of anthems like “Hurricane Season” were highlights but Andrews’ vocals did just fine, particularly on Alan Toussaint’s reimagined classic “On Your Way Down”. Two more albums followed on Verve in short order, a Backatown reprise (also produced by Ben Ellman from New Orleans funk band Galactic) and then a more R&B-oriented album in Say That To Say This. Three albums in four years, and result of two factors coinciding: Andrews’ wise decision to take his time making a major label debut and therefore coming loaded with great stuff, and a surge in popularity and concert prowess that put the “Shorty” name at the top of festivals and concerts all over. Demand and supply worked together to create some great stuff.
Now another four years have passed, and Andrews has switched to Blue Note Records after a bit of silence as a recording artist. Parking Lot Symphony arrives in much the same mold as the 2013 collection, fusing vintage ‘70s soul and the Shorty Sound, that funkrocksoul brass blast. It’s tempting to say that the collection demonstrates Andrews' sound is pretty well set. Nothing new here. But it’s equally true that this formula is far from exhausted. The fun in the combination remains. The truth about Parking Lot Symphony sits somewhere in the middle — same old same old, yup, and a pretty good same old.
The first song, “It Ain’t No Use” (actually the second track, as the album is framed by two New Orleans brass dirges, but it’s first song), is an old one by The Meters, New Orleans' most reliable funk-soul outfit. Brass band punches come out early, then a soulful vocal, a trombone solo framed by ethereal “Ahhhh” female vocals, and finally a return of the vocal chorus backed by a brass accompaniment that sound like the best stuff on Backatown. In other words: Wow! And: Wow, I’ve heard all this before...
This blend of old school soul and brass power are the collection at its best. “Here Come the Girls” is an Alan Toussaint funk groover, a fun call-and-response tune jacked up by hip chords changes and the chorus horn line. “Where It At?” is an Andrews original in much the same vein: a great beat, vocals that are really just an excuse for the funk, and a trombone solo that is just an excuse to get back to the horn part all alone. This stuff is pure meat-and-potatoes for Andrews, and it’s why you dig him, most likely.
In some other places, the production and sounds get modernized, bridging ‘70s soul and today’s hip-hop, one part analog soul and one part groove machine. “Dirty Water” brings to mind Al Green, with a near-falsetto pre-chorus followed by a hooky chorus that works on a catchy set of chord changes. Andrews takes a trumpet solo here, and he’s just fine — lyrical, tasty, bluesy — but you’re happier when the piano groove kicks back in with the vocals. The Shorty brass sound, mainly, is about punching the groove rather than crafting intelligent improvisation. “Familiar” moves you closer to 2017, jamming up the Shorty Horn Section sound with hip-hop vocals and percussion. But the rapping is minimal and fairly generic.
In other places, Andrews stays 45 or 50 years in the past. “Parking Lot Symphony” is pure, sunny, genial ‘70s soul. You can feel the heat of summer falling on your shoulders like you were cruising in a Plymouth convertible. But an ending section with strings and wordless vocals does kind of drag you down. “No Good Time” is an Andrews original that I like a lot, a mellow groove that puts some electric piano in the gaps between soulful ‘70s vocals and horn parts that a little more Chicago (the band) than Nawlins. But it’s in the middle of a tune like this where you start to realize why this “Trombone Shorty” thing is a tough act to pull off. You’re Shorty because you funk-fuel these tunes with horn power, but there also needs to be a contrast to that sound. Yet, when you take the horns out... you’re just a sort-of-okay soul band.
Parking Lot Symphony sounds most triumphant, perhaps, on the instrumental tunes. But there’s a real problem there too. For pure funk fun, it’s “Tripped Out Slim”, which is pretty much reheated “Hurricane Season”, with a strong trombone solo that goes from broken-down stop time to full groove. “Fanfare” has a more stuttering drum groove, a nice middle eight and some plush harmonies to set up the trumpet solo. And maybe the best instrumental is “Like a Dog”, which is a bit heavier on the rock groove and adds organ in the mix nicely. But all the instrumentals on Parking Lot Symphony tend to fade into each other (and into the horn parts on the vocal tunes). There are certain voicings and melodic arcs that Andrews uses over and over. You hear them again on this tune, and you wonder if there isn’t too much of a good thing here.
After listening to Trombone Shorty’s latest four or five times over, I’ve about had my fill. Not of the the Shorty brand, the Shorty energy, or the cool mixture that he achieves, though. I’d go to see him in concert tomorrow if he was in my town. But my appetite for more Shorty albums — for hearing him mix his sure-fire ingredients into new songs — is feeling fatigue. Parking Lot Symphony is a fine document of Shorty’s blend of New Orleans funk, modernized brass band fire, and old school soul. Four albums into the journey, though, the formula has been varied, repeated, and — perhaps — exhausted.