Saturday, June 26, 2010

Max Weinberg Big Band jazzes up Newport

One of America's best known rock drummers took a decidedly jazzy turn Friday night at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach's outdoor amphitheater.

Max Weinberg, the percussionist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for 36 years and leader of Conan O'Brien's two late-night TV bands, brought his 14-piece jazz outfit to Newport to kick off the hotel's 2010 summer jazz series

The Max Weinberg Big Band borrowed heavily from the Count Basie Orchestra's playbook and delivered an evening of quality, straight-ahead jazz, quickly allaying any fears that it was going to be a smooth jazz kind of night.

The horn-heavy band (no guitars) opened Friday night's concert with "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," the theme from Steve Allen's "Tonight Show." The Weinberg band also performed the Count Basie Orchestra's arrangements of "Come Fly With Me" and "Walk Don't Run."

Weinberg's group consisted of four trumpeters, three trombone players, two tenor saxophonists, two alto saxophonists, a baritone sax player, a pianist and an upright bass player. Each band member got an opportunity to solo, and together they sounded bright, tight and well-rehearsed.

Weinberg, looking a little grayer and sporting a graying beard, nonetheless appeared content banging away on his drum kit and leading his new band, which he informally calls his "third act." He graciously thanked the audience and introduced most numbers with a little story or explanation.

The Weinberg Big Band performed the "M. Squad Theme," written by Count Basie and arranged by Benny Carter. The tune for the 1957-60 TV series was layered with fantastic horn solos, including a particularly jammin' one by Jon Gordon on alto sax.

In case the audience hadn't had enough of Count Basie, the Weinberg outfit did a suite of Beatles tunes as arranged by the Basie Orchestra – "Help!," "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and "Kansas City," the last being a rock 'n' roll standard that the Beatles covered.

Surprisingly, the Weinberg Big Band made "Help!" and the other songs swing. Brandon Wright did a fine job on tenor, Ed Neumeister offered some cool licks on trombone, and Seneca Black spiced up the night on trumpet.

The big band did yet another Count Basie Orchestra arrangement, "The Kid from Red Bank," an up-tempo tune that allowed Danny Fox to shine on piano. I should mention that Carlitos del Puerto, originally from Havana, Cuba, excelled throughout the night on upright bass.

After a jazzed-up version of Ray Charles' countrified "I Can't Stop Loving You," Weinberg paused to acknowledge a special guest in the audience, Hubert Laws. It wasn't entirely clear whether he was invited or if he simply showed up on his own. However, Weinberg wanted folks to know one of the great jazz flutists of all time was present.

That was a nice segue into "The Swingin' Shepherd Blues," which featured Wright and Joey Berkley on flute. I must say, I was more impressed with their sax playing, but they didn't sound bad.

The big band offered tasty renditions of "Mr. Lucky," a Henry Mancini composition; "Parthenia," written by Shelly Manne; and "Only the Lonely," made popular by Frank Sinatra. The latter was perhaps the most mellow and soulful moment of the night, with Gordon on alto sax offering some sorrow and impressive range.

Weinberg expressed particular fondness for drumming legend Buddy Rich, and led his band through Rich numbers "Critic's Choice" and "Bugle Call Rag." It was during these tunes that Weinberg punched out a couple of snazzy drum solos, proving to everyone he's still got it.

The Weinberg Big Band closed its show with, you guessed it, a Springsteen song. It was an oldie, "Kitty's Back," from the Boss' second album, "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle." The high-energy arrangement was actually done by Brian Pareschi, who plays trumpet for Weinberg's Big Band. Friday's jazz-rock version was a fitting end to a night of satisfying, well-executed music.

The Hyatt Regency's summer jazz series continues through Oct. 1. Visit for details.