“Oh Johnny, where are you when I need you,” Doc Severinsen said after a failed joke Friday night during his show at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center, where he opened the center’s fifth season.
While the 85-year-old Severinsen has been making serious music for the past 20 years since ending his 30-year stint with Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show,” he still draws based on his Carson fame. Wearing purple leather pants — he changed to hot-pink for the second set — and an off-white jacket covered in sparkles, his flair for fashion and sense of humor were still alive and well.
Friday night, he played with the San Miguel 5, a Mexican band — Severinsen moved to Mexico to retire after the “Tonight Show” — playing ballads with samba beats, pop tunes from Argentina, and gypsy-influenced jazz.
His band held most of the air time — violinist Charlie Bisharat stole the show often — but when Severinsen played, he blew strong, clean solos in the higher register, filling the room with his robust tone. Often he overpowered his band, and the room, with his horn; when he plugged his trumpet with the horn, the mix was perfect for the acoustically sensitive theater.
“Good night,” Severinsen said after the first song, setting the tone for his humor.
When a group of three people came midway through the first set, he had the band leave the stage and enter again to play the first few bars of the show.
“That’s what you missed,” he said, then revealed that the latecomers were his sister-in-law and nephews.
“She’s been late all her life,” he quipped.
The band packed the show with dynamic moments, each player holding the attention of the full theater without effort. Led by Gil Gutierrez on acoustic guitar — who strummed high-speed razzle-dazzle solos that wowed the crowd, particularly his Django Reinhart tune — the group jammed to some fusion and some swing.
Severinsen’s arrangements often had a big-band feel. While Cuban drummer Jimmy Bramly played hand-drums much of the night, he picked up sticks for one tune to bang a romping beat on the floor tom like Gene Krupa, framing a canvas for Severinsen to sketch a full picture in two verses.
Severinsen said: “His brother was long gone. … The minute I met Gutierrez in Mexico, I knew I found my brother.”
After Severinsen had Gutierrez introduce a song in his thick accent, he joked, “That’s why we can’t get booked in Arizona anymore.”
On “Libertine,” violinist Bisharat stole the stage for the first time; there were many to come. His playing was dense with emotion, while at other times it was his speed and dexterity that impressed. His resume includes a long list of names he has performed with, including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and many of today’s hot jazz players.
Severinsen played from a high stool and stood when he talked. He appeared far younger than his age, and blew his horn with amazing breath still. In fact, he appeared not much different than his days on the Tonight Show. While that alone was quite something to see, the show also delivered world-class jazz.
The only thing missing was his Tonight Show shtick Carson dubbed “Stump the Band.”
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