Max Weinberg: From Conan to the Dakota

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2010 - 4:17 PM

After drumming for Bruce Springsteen and Conan O'Brien, Max Weinberg is bringing his 15-piece Big Band to the Dakota.

Max Weinberg

Photo: Carlos Marino, Carlos Marino

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Max Weinberg kept avoiding a direct answer to the question -- no matter how many different ways it was asked.

Will you be leading the band for Conan O'Brien's new talk show in November on TBS?

"I haven't thought about it, and I don't think they have, either," said Weinberg, who spent 17 years with the Max Weinberg 7 on O'Brien's two shows on NBC. "He did this comedy tour, which was very successful. I saw the show at Radio City [in New York City], and he asked me to come down and I played a song. But I live in New Jersey, and they film in California. I assume they're mounting a whole new production and concept. So the most definitive thing I can say to anyone interested in Conan and myself: Just stay tuned."

Do you want to do it?

"I want to keep drumming," he said. "I've had 10 years of fantastic reuniting with Bruce [Springsteen] and the E Street Band. I look forward to doing that again. TV was great. It was unfortunate the way it ended, particularly for Conan. I don't regret a day playing on television. For all those years, I had the best of both worlds. My thing is to relax and to play drums with this big band and to continue to play with the E Street Band and Bruce."

That would be the Max Weinberg Big Band, a project he launched this year that brings him to Minneapolis on Wednesday.

"I just got off of a monthlong, basically, bus-and-Holiday-Inn tour," Weinberg said last week, "and it was about the greatest time I've ever had."

The musicians in his band -- 12 horn players and a three-man rhythm section -- have "real jazz chops." When he approached them, he explained that his concept wasn't retro but rather used the "muscularity" of his drumming style.

"The music has evolved over the last month of playing," Weinberg said. "It started out more jazz-like and now it's really pretty raucous. That instrumental, raunchy, roadhouse strip-club kind of playing. The guys have really embraced it. I tell people that I'm not really a jazz drummer; I just played one on TV. That's kind of the truth."

The seed for this idea was planted about 12 years ago when Weinberg was asked to appear with some college jazz ensembles. The drummer tested the concept with a few West Coast gigs during his "Tonight Show" tenure. When NBC and O'Brien parted ways in January, Weinberg returned full-time to New Jersey and knew he was going to undertake a big-band tour.

"I wanted to get back on the road and play for people," said Weinberg, 59, whose two children are now out of the house. "It seems very natural for me."

With the help of jazz bassist Carlitos del Puerto, Weinberg recruited a group of New York area musicians, whose average age is about 38. They have about 50 songs in their repertoire, drawing heavily on material associated with the four B's: Buddy Rich, Count Basie, the Beatles and the Boss.

Yes, they will do some Springsteen songs, including possibly "Kitty's Back" and "Born to Run."

"It's not karaoke. It's not a backing track without the singer," explained Mighty Max, whose band has no guitarist. "It's rearranged for a big band by our trumpet player, Brian Pareschi. You don't lose the melody. But you definitely get a different take."

Weinberg said he hasn't heard from Springsteen but suspects the Boss is writing songs for another album. Meanwhile, the drummer plans a vacation in Italy in late summer and a return to the road with the big band in October.

"When I play the drums, I do feel like a teenager," said Weinberg, who has lost 40 pounds since leaving TV and grown a goatee and longer hair. "This feels like a very natural, organic third act, if you will, to be doing this. I'm a road rat. I want to stay on the road. I told my agency that I want to do 180 shows a year."

The way he talks, maybe he did answer the big Conan question, after all.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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  • MAX WEINBERG BIG BAND

    When: 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. Wed.

    Where: Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

    Tickets: $28-$45. 612-332-1010.

    Web: www.maxweinberg.com.

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