A horn player from New Orleans, Trombone Shorty is easily pigeonholed as a jazz artist. But while he’s always had a strong showing on the jazz charts, the music he makes isn’t nearly so easy to pin down. Jazz is just one ingredient in his high-octane blend of rock, funk, and R&B. In fact, Parking Lot Symphony may be the most “jazz” thing he’s released to date. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s also his first album for Blue Note, the most venerable of jazz labels.
The album opens with a solemn horn arrangement on the hymn-like “Laveau Dirge No. 1.” The song is entirely instrumental and features a mesmerizing trumpet solo that points straight back to Louis Armstrong’s warm, easygoing melodicism. That sets the tone for an album full of casual instrumental virtuosity, with playing that’s loose and limber but always tuneful.
Much of the remaining material finds Shorty in a more familiar setting—that is, blurring genre distinctions or ignoring them altogether. But even his most thoroughly hybridized tracks feature strong horn charts and terrific soloing. On the bridge of “Dirty Water,” a finger-popping R&B groove with a sing-along chorus and smooth-rolling piano lines, Shorty takes a low-key trumpet solo before ceding the spotlight to the piano man.
Every album that Shorty’s made has been varied and inventive, though none have found him cutting loose and just playing like he does on Parking Lot Symphony. That said, while his soloing is skillful, where he really shines is as a bandleader and arranger, with an ability to bring together disparate idioms and genres into something that feels punchy, streamlined, and propulsive. Though “Ain’t No Use” features some fiery horn playing in its extended bridge, the song never veers too far from its upbeat, hook-laden structure. It boasts some impressive jazz chops, but it’s a pop song at its core.
Shorty walks that line throughout the album. Every song is melodic and accessible, even as the arrangements are sophisticated and complex. The title track begins as a jaunty R&B tune and transforms into something that lives up to its name: down-to-earth but also sweeping in scope. There’s even a string section to complete the orchestral feel. “Familiar” is also heady and complex, opening with a boom-bap rhythm that’s borrowed from hip-hop but leaving room for a loose piano breakdown in the middle. Best of all is a cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Here Come the Girls,” which moves to a dynamite locomotive rhythm and is jam-packed with layered vocal hooks and horn arrangements.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s that Shorty’s lyrics feel like placeholders. They exist not so much for their meaning than to provide people something to sing along to at his live shows—which would be fine if the familiar hookup and breakup tropes didn’t lack imagination. The same could certainly not be said of the music, which is as rich and as complex as any he’s made.