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At 82, Severinsen still makes the grade

Doc Severinsen & El Ritmo de la Vida
Pioneer Press

By Dan Emerson

Few musicians retire willingly. Most prefer to keep playing their music as long as they can, if their performances are up to snuff.

Former “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen, who led his Mexico-based quintet Monday night at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, is a prime example.

The trumpeter, who will turn 83 on July 7, ended his 25-year run with Johnny Carson in 1992. In 2007, he retired as principal pops conductor for several symphony orchestras, including the Minnesota Orchestra, and moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

There, he met a group of local jazz musicians in a cafe and eventually formed his current ensemble, El Ritmo de la Vida (“The Rhythm of Life”).

The group’s repertoire is a heady blend of traditional Mexican music, Argentine tango, Spanish flamenco and gypsy jazz.

Severinsen’s group on the current tour includes one other fairly well-known U.S. musician — violinist Sid Page, who was a stalwart of the popular ’70s swing band, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

Monday’s opening set included an unidentified flamenco piece (with a trumpet part evocative of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”) and two pieces by the great Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

One was “Libertango,” with the melody played in unison by Severinsen, Page and guitarist Gil Gutierrez. Cuban-born percussionist Jimmy Branly laid down a brisk beat with brushes on his snare drum, supported by upright bassist Kevin Thomas.

Along with various strains of Latin music, Severinsen’s group also plays some gypsy jazz in the style of the great Django Reinhardt. In that vein, the opening set included a brisk run through violinist Joe Venuti’s “Minor Swing,” with Page taking the lead.

Gutierrez, who spends most of his time finger-picking his nylon-string guitar, did some virtuoso flat-picking on his solo.

The set-closer was a lengthy, complicated tango by Piazzolla, with many shifts of tempo, rhythm and dynamics along the way.

Based on Severinsen’s solos on this and other tunes, he doesn’t seem to have lost much of his power and control over his instrument, whether blowing open or muted horn.

When he wasn’t playing, he did some conducting from his chair on the right side of the stage.

He certainly seems to be enjoying his current project.

“If this is retirement, I can recommend it highly,” he told the Dakota audience.

Severinsen and El Ritmo de la Vida will perform again tonight at the Dakota at 7:30 and 9:30.

Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician in Minneapolis.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 28, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    My wife’s surprise birthday present to me was to hear the legend, ‘Doc’ himself, virtuoso Gil Gutiérrez, and the band in concert in northern California in June 2010–a dream come true! They put on a first-rate show, played their hearts out and had fun doing it. I can listen to their music all day. Heck, sometimes I do.

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