Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, is no Ketil Bjornstad. He’s a far cry from Toninho Ferraguti or Willy Gonzalez. Diane Reeves, Karryin Allyson, Danilo Rea, he is most definitely not. It’s arguable whether or not Mr. Shorty even belongs in Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz Series.
And for that we are thankful, because often it seems the seriousness of Spoleto jazz programming requires a stiff kick in the pants, and Trombone Shorty, with his band Orleans Avenue, was just the man to deliver this kick at the Cistern for his first of two programs there on Thursday night.
“Program” may in fact be the wrong word, as the experience was much more of a rock concert performance, despite that Spoleto organizers at first tried to maintain an ambiance in keeping with the seriousness of a capital-J Jazz program. It was clear from the start Shorty wanted none of that.
“I know y’all got seats and all out there, but don’t hold back!” he exclaimed on making his entrance, signature trombone held high over his head like a weapon of battle. “Cause we sure ain’t holding back.”
Shorty’s two-hour set of NoLa-infused bouillabaisse of rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop and soul was clearly the product of a man used to Lenny Kravitz-style gigs, with whom he has toured. The overwhelmingly young and middle-aged audience spilled out of the rows of plastic chairs and onto the Cistern lawn, milling about the two open bars, dancing near blankets to the sides.
Outside, the fence audience was as big as I’ve ever seen for a jazz concert there, with scores of people lined up along the wrought-iron bars peering in or squatting along St. Philip and George Streets, toes tapping. The crowd seemed to understand the nature of the event even before seeing it, as ticket-holders continued to stream in for 30 minutes after the show’s start, creating a party-like atmosphere that Shorty encouraged. Forty-five minutes into the set, he’d had enough of this sitting-down business: “Everybody out of your seats,” he shouted, jumping up and down. “I want to see you shake what your mama gave you.”
Across the street at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, Edgar Oliver’s East 10th Street brought the mood down a notch or ten. The house near the East Village's Tompkins Square Park where Oliver lived for years is surely an interesting place filled with zany, wacky characters, who make for fun anecdotes.
How many of us have lived next to a midget who keeps hundreds of coffee jars filled with his own excrement on shelves in his apartment? Or a building superintendent who tiptoes over the ghosts he sees lying prone in his foyer every night.
But that’s all there is to his monologue — descriptive portraits of admittedly weird people he knew, delivered in Oliver’s baroque bass monotone. It’s a voice that seem to have such potential, a bottomless Bela Lugosi canyon of a voice, but for some reason he seems to limit its range here to a just a sliver of its theatrical potential. Physically, he does the same, limiting himself to just three or four gestures for the entire show — fingers fluttering before him, arms outstretched like wings, slowly flapping.
What seems to be missing here is any sense of theatricality or, more importantly, insight into the human experience. Although it’s told from a first-person perspective, the monologue is is completely lacking in emotional content. Oliver is surely a very capable performer, but East 10th Street gives us nothing but amusingly eccentric sketches of Brooklyn oddballs. All of this might be interesting at a cocktail party or over an evening huddled around the bong, but beside such works as The Red Shoes, The Cripple of Inishmaan, County of Kings, even Taylor Mac’s sneering heartbreak, East 10th Street feels like a blank piece of paper, a story waiting to be told.