Sounds Round Midnight

By Ken Tucker
October 08, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Late-night hosts are always assuring us that their studio bands sound great wailing away during the commercials, but how do these outfits stack up in the snippets heard by a TV viewer at home? We rate the bands:

The Tonight Show Band
Unlike Doc Severinsen,the current Tonight Show bandleader is as interested in hard and post-bop as in pop standards and big band. But saxophonist Branford Marsalis — who sometimes looks as if he wishes Jay Leno would just leave him alone — could use a bit more of Doc’s snappy showmanship. The Tonight Show band doesn’t always come across effectively on television because its top-flight musicians take too long to get into or out of a commercial break. Lovely closing theme, though. B+

The CBS Orchestra
You’d never know that primo Letterman foil Paul Shaffer has added Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell to his reconstituted group: As always, this is a slick, fast, frequently witty, but assiduously unfunky crew. B

The Max Weinberg Seven Drummer Weinberg is playing his E Street heart out with his six cohorts on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night. He knows he has to work hard to hook O’Brien’s college-age crowd and has come up with a canny mixture of soul oldies and camp-tinged jazz. Beaming as he pounds, Weinberg is the most likable bandleader in late-night. A-

Chevy Chase’s unnamed band
Consistency is a byword here: The worst nighttime talk show has the worst music, spearheaded by saxophonist-leader Tom Scott’s impeccably played, flaccid pop-fusion glop. D

Arsenio Hall’s Posse
Like Scott, keyboardist-leader Michael Wolff also emulates his boss, wagging his head to the bass-heavy MOR funk provided by a passel of soulless pros. When Arsenio bids them to ”give me something really nasty,” they respond with licks that would sound tame on a New Kids on the Block album. C