LIVE: John Tropea Band @ The Falcon, 4/14/18
In our last episode, I declared that many fans of ‘70s fusion like their jazz the same way fans of Wynton Marsalis and other traditionalists like their jazz – encased in amber, untouched by whatever came afterwards. I react to both entrenched styles in the same way: “Been there, done that, can we PLEASE move on???” As such, I should have been bored to tears by the mid-‘70s soul jazz the John Tropea Band served up at The Falcon – except I was on my feet howling with the rest of the baby boomers who’d packed Tony Falco’s musical oasis on Route 9W.
Tropea’s name popped up on a lot of liner notes back in the day, most notably on albums by keyboard wunderkind Eumir Deodato and singer-songwriter Laura Nyro. In fact, it was on Nyro’s scintillating live date Season of Lights that that I first heard Tropea’s modern take on Wes Montgomery. While Tropea has more than a few releases of his own, his last recording Gotcha Rhythm Right Here came out in 2014, and there are some pretty sizeable time lags before that. So what kind of noise was this 72-year old studio legend going to make on this night? Answer: An absolutely joyful one!
Nowadays, Tropea does a lot of live dates with the Original Blues Brothers Band; as it happens, they’d just played a festival in Australia a few weeks prior to the Tropea Band’s appearance in Marlboro. A lot of Jake & Elwood’s outfit accompanied Tropea onto the Falcon’s stage, including a hellacious four-man horn section led by one of the founders of the Blues Brothers, tenorman “Blue Lou” Marini. He played fiery foil to Tropea’s searing technical brilliance all night long, and Marini’s flamethrower solo on the kickass opener “Seventh Avenue South” blew our hair back like a mass re-creation of that classic Maxell commercial from the ‘70s.
From the word “Go,” everything coming from Tropea’s Fender amp had that rippling sound that made Wes Montgomery famous before he went out to the west coast and got swallowed whole by an enormous orchestra. But because Tropea had that amp turned up to 11, that sound had a lot more body mass and muscle tone. This isn’t to say that Tropea was shredding metal or getting lost in his stomp boxes: There was a little echo here, a little whammy bar there, but by and large, every run and lyric he dropped on us was purpose-built for whatever was happening at that time.
That focus even showed up on the title track to Gotcha Rhythm, which closed the regular set. It may have been the end of the night, but Tropea was still directing traffic on how the solos were to disperse. Tropea also gave a nod to another big influence, George Benson, with a happy take on “Mambo Inn,” a tune made famous by Machito & his Afro-Cubans and covered by Benson.
“Seventh Avenue South” is named for the club Michael & Randy Brecker owned in NYC years ago; it’s also drenched in the funkalicious energy of the Brecker Brothers Band, a group that had more in common with Tower of Power than John Coltrane. That irresistible R&B vibe was rampant throughout the 90-minute set, with horn charts that were so tight and so powerful, all you could do was release your jaw and let it flap in the hurricane created by Marini, trumpeter Don Harris, trombonist Birch Johnson and bari saxman Dave Riekenberg. All of them had solo moments on the evening, most notably on an overlong encore of “Ol’ School” that had some of us checking our watches. For the most part, though, the horns maintained an unstoppable group assault on our collective sense of soul.
Given that Tropea’s mentors include Jimmy Smith and Captain Jack McDuff, I expected Chris Palmaro’s Hammond B3 to take more than an active role on the evening, but other than a few short, sharp solos and participation in the long march that was the encore, Palmaro stayed pretty much in the background with bassist Zev Katz and drummer Lee Finkelstein. Tommy McDonnell did great accent work on his arsenal of percussion instruments, but his biggest imprint was made when he stepped to the front of the stage and lived up to his nickname “Pipes,” laying passionate vocals onto Otis Redding’s “Mister Pitiful” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love.”
Yes, I had a terrific time, like everyone else in the place – musicians included. But what about that thing I said earlier about how I hate music encased in amber? Well, the one thing that will shatter an amber case into itty-bitty pieces is out-and-out FUN, of which there was plenty from the start of the night to its standing-ovation finish. Fun was what separated the Brecker Brothers Band from ‘70s contemporaries who were firmly focused on cooking chops with electricity instead of old-fashioned gas or steam. John Tropea may be in his 70s, but he’s still dishing out tasty artisanal chops with heaping sides of fun, and that’s the only way to dine on a Saturday night – in Marlboro, or anywhere else.