It didn’t take a genius to peg Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews as a national success waiting to happen. He’s young, good-looking and a born entertainer, he was also making credible jazz records when he was barely out of puberty. His roots are in the Treme Brass Band circuit—which, if the HBO series Treme does its bit, will soon be in the national consciousness. But Andrews has already played to arenas, touring in Lenny Kravitz’s band and playing in the U2/Green Day number at the 2006 Saints home opener. All someone had to do was make a capital-C crossover album—maybe with a brass-hop version of “St. James Infirmary” on it—and wait for the money to roll in.
Backatown is definitely not that album, nor is it necessarily the one you’d expect from his live shows, which ride heavily on extended party jams. It’s a crossover set, but a creative one that doesn’t play to the tourists alone. Galactic’s Ben Ellman produces, and it’s up the same general alley as Galactic’s Ya-Ka-May, which placed loops, samples and bounce beats within the New Orleans R&B tradition. Backatown’s title track is clearly a studio creation with its looped drums, echoed guitar and synths, and a horn line that sounds flown in from a different recording, capped by a brief but fiery trombone solo. It sounds lively and catchy instead of overloaded, like one of those lucky accidents when two houses leave their windows open and the results mesh.
The cut-and-paste approach also works for the disc’s one familiar tune, Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down.” There wasn’t much need for another faithful version of the song (Elvis Costello and Little Feat both nailed it in different decades) and this one (with Toussaint’s own piano at the heart of the mix) updates the groove and reworks the melody without losing the message, throwing some nifty “Shaft”- style flute into the bargain. Kravitz’s influence is clear on the other vocal tracks: “Something Beautiful” is the kind of Stevie Wonder/EWF homage that made Kravitz’s name, but sounds more like a hit than anything on his last two albums.
If there’s a problem here, it’s that Andrews and the band never stretch out. The longest of the 14 tracks on Backatown is 3:46—unheard-of brevity for nearly any modern album, much less a funk-based one. The power-chord driven “Suburbia” demands more than the three minutes it gets; “928 Horn Jam” has all the makings of a raucous old-school finale, but cuts off after 40 seconds. Maybe this is another nod to the Galactic audience, which figures that live tapes are for trading and that studio albums are the place to break ground.