This is the album that fans probably expected Trombone Shorty to make three years ago—a straight-ahead R&B disc. At the time, Shorty instead hooked up with Galactic’s Ben Ellman, whose inventive techniques transformed his studio sound on Backatown and For True, much as Daniel Lanois did with the Neville Brothers on Yellow Moon. And just as the Nevilles followed two experimental discs with the straight-ahead Family Groove, Shorty gets down to basics on Say That to Say This: No loops, very little hip-hop influence (and thankfully, no Kid Rock either)—just a soulful, band-centric album heavy on New Orleans funk.
And you can’t get more New Orleans funk than a Meters reunion—the late ’70s lineup, with fifth member Cyril Neville—joining Shorty on “Be My Lady,” their first studio track together since 1978. Only trouble is that it’s practically a clone of the ’78 version on New Directions, which already had horns and an uncharacteristic smooth groove. You can hear why Shorty wanted to recut it—it’s a seductive ballad that deserved to be a hit first time around—but as a Meters reunion it’s a classic missed opportunity.
Another local classic gets echoed on “Fire & Brimstone,” whose opening bass groove brings Aaron Neville’s Toussaint-authored “Hercules” to mind. Both songs are full of street wisdom but while Neville’s song was tense, Shorty’s is triumphant, singing that music delivered him from the street life and vowing that fire and brimstone will always be in his horn. Co-producer Raphael Saadiq makes his presence felt with some of the most polished vocals Shorty’s done; this track is where his persona—tough, but warm and charismatic—really gels.
Saadiq’s hitmaking touch is a plus throughout; even the four instrumentals are concise and catchy (“Sunrise” is a lyrical moment, mostly with only horns and tambourine), while “You and I” and “Dream On” (no, not a cover) both energize with their rise-above sentiments. If a bit less progressive than the Ellman discs, this one can carry him to an even larger audience without losing the New Orleans essence,