“You de man!” hollered a fan as Max Weinberg settled in behind his drum kit at the start of his big band’s first of two shows Sunday night at Jardine’s.
As a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and as the former TV bandleader for Conan O’Brien (including the latter’s ill-fated stint as host of the “Tonight Show”) the savvy stick man’s fame couldn’t help but precede him.
But it was really “de men” – 14 vibrant young players on trumpets, trombones, saxophones, stand-up bass and piano fronted by their charismatic veteran leader – that made the next 90 minutes of popular instrumental music in the swinging style of Count Basie such a sensational experience.
“This Could Be the Start of Something Big” accurately kicked off the fun. The Steve Allen-composed theme to Allen’s original “Tonight Show” came out punching like a boxer looking for a quick knockout and getting it. That was followed by a soaring “Come Fly with Me” (somewhere Frank Sinatra was snapping his fingers) and a cleverly flowing take on the Ventures’ vintage surf rock hit, “Walk Don’t Run.”
“It’s a delight for us to be here,” Weinberg said in the first of several between-tune talks for which he stood at his drums and used a hand microphone to address the sold-out jazz club that was almost as tightly packed as the small stage holding so many top-notch musicians.
The atmosphere was thrilling and intimate, and the beaming Weinberg thanked the crowd for coming out to hear “live music – where you drink, you eat, we sweat. It all works!”
It didn’t take long for him to take a shot at Jay Leno, amusingly likening the lantern-jawed one to some sort of criminal for returning as host of the “Tonight Show" and supplanting O’Brien after just seven months on the job. Weinberg emphasized his commentary with a kick of the bass drum.
“I do my own rim shots, too,” he said, grinning.
He spoke of his childhood affection for the Count Basie Orchestra’s theme to the TV police series, “M Squad.”
“I just latched onto that,” Weinberg said. “I have lots of experience playing TV themes to shows that last only about a year.”
For the record, “M Squad” was actually on the air from 1957 to 1960. Weinberg was no doubt confusing it with “Mr. Lucky,” another TV cop drama that ran one season from 1959 to 1960, and whose impressively swaggering theme by Henry Mancini fortunately would be played later in the evening.
But first there was the stabbing majesty of “M Squad,” seasoned with stand-out solos from each instrumental section – as was the case all night with every tune. This one concluded with a high and wild trumpet that recalled the stratospheric horn of Maynard Ferguson.
Weinberg introduced Bill Holman’s “Ready Mix” by saying that he cherished its recording by his hero, the late Buddy Rich.
“The world’s greatest drummer,” Weinberg said. “If you asked Buddy, he’d agree.”
The somewhat ironic compliment drew a bit of discerning applause.
“Thank you on behalf of Buddy,” Weinberg said. “He won’t know.”
Weinberg talked about his visit to the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine, which he praised for celebrating the influential legacy of so many greats, including Kansas City’s Charlie Parker and Jay McShann, as well as Count Basie, who moved to Kansas City from Red Neck, N.J., which Weinberg said he lived near.
Drawing inspiration from the 1966 album, “Basie’s Beatle Bag,” featuring 12 early Beatles songs expertly swung by the Basie band (“This was a fantastic idea,” Weinberg said), the big band treated the audience to an stimulating suite of Beatles’ tunes: “Help,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” and a cover of the Fab Four’s cover of “Kansas City.”
The melody of “Help” was most satisfyingly supplied by the saxophone section, especially when it went way upstairs to emulate the John, Paul, George falsetto of “won’t you please, please help me”; “Secret” was transformed into an effectively tender yet still simmering slow dance number; and Weinberg alternated between snazzy fills and pulsing cymbal work to keep the shuffle headed exactly where it needed to go in “Kansas City.”
Weinberg proudly introduced each member of his band, calling them “the best musicians out there” and pointing out that “all these guys lead their own bands (and) I steal them away.”
“I mention their names,” he added, “because they tied me down and made me.” Well, you never know.
For sure, the band tied up the crowd’s heartstrings with a flat-out gorgeous version of Ray Charles’ soulful take on the country classic, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The audience loved it and applauded extra loud and long.
“I think you remember that one!” Weinberg said afterward.
The rest of the memorable set included Basie’s high-spirited “The Kid from Red Bank,” more Sinatra nostalgia by way of the saloon-friendly “Only the Lonely” and the patriotic and powerful “Bugle Call Rag,” which got a standing ovation.
“That’s really heartwarming…,” Weinberg said in response. “I’m going to do a song now called ‘Groovin’ Hard.’ The way I’m feeling now, it’s breathing hard.”
If Weinberg was taxed from his exertions on the drums, he didn’t look it from my snug seat in the back. Absolutely not winded from any point of view were saxophonists Brandon Wright and Joey Barkley, who took part in an old-fashioned cutting contest.
Weinberg introduced the sax duel by promising those seated down front a saliva shower of killer whale proportions.
“Does the name Shamu mean anything to you”? Weinberg said, making a Sea World allusion.
“They can’t move around too much,” he said of the two competitors on the crowded stage, “but they are going to get down.”
The band starting playing and Wright and Barkley took turns spraying their talent (and whatever else) in an increasingly crazy impromptu opus enhanced by Weinberg’s mad drumming and repeated beseeching of both amazingly talented players to give it their all.
“Blow! Blow!” Weinberg shouted.
Who won the contest? Everyone in the joint.
“You won’t see that anywhere else but Jardine’s!” Weinberg announced when it was over.
But it wasn’t really all over until Weinberg talked about his “moonlighting job” with Springsteen, and the band played “Kitty’s Back” from the Boss’ second album, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” But in the swinging Kansas City style, of course.
“This is a great place to play,” Weinberg said. “You can get really loose.”
And did he ever, moving his hands so rapidly across his body while playing at one point that the result was blurred drumsticks.
Buddy would have been proud – at least of himself for inspiring it.