Session Sensei The Keys to the New Tonight Show Theme

In pre-production before the premiere of the new Tonight Show, our band’s greatest challenge was to redesign our theme song. The producers didn’t want a gut job, just a remodel — spruce it up, energize it, give it an edge and gravitas.
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In pre-production before the premiere of the new Tonight Show, our band’s greatest challenge was to redesign our theme song. The producers didn’t want a gut job, just a remodel — spruce it up, energize it, give it an edge and gravitas.

We had added a percussionist, so we experimented, eventually settling on bongos and some cool hand percussion parts. We dissected the bass line and the rhythm section groove, simplified some parts, and changed a few notes and chords. The presentation of the actual theme melody had to be strong and compelling, while still saving something for the last build-up and climactic statement. The arc of the theme melody needed to be clear, and the ensemble sound had to be beefed up.

Many of the new sonic responsibilities fell to me. My part is fun to play, and it puts me right in the middle of the action. Here’s how I pulled it off:

Come Out Swinging

For the big brass “pow” on the downbeat, I augmented our three-piece horn section with samples. I’ve found that if you take the time to find a sound that matches, construct good voicings, and mind the articulation, you can make the combination sound realistic. The chord itself started out on paper; I wrote out a nine-voice spread for the G13 chord with the root on top and a close voicing right under it, doubled the lead note an octave lower, then spread it out wide at the bottom. The trumpet, ’bone, and bari players each picked a note near the top of their range to maximize their live section power, and I filled in the others with a brass patch on my Yamaha Motif. It worked okay, but I couldn’t find a way to exactly match their fall-off, and the voicing just didn’t quite achieve that ensemble ring and Basie splat! sound. . . .

Horns Aplenty

We recorded our horn players doing my fill-in parts in two passes, making sure they matched their own articulations and falloffs. I mixed the tracks down and transferred them to my sampler. The final result is me on six voices (played with one finger) supporting the three live horns. Since my sample is the same guys who are playing live, it matches perfectly.

Horns Aplentier

There’s also a horn swell starting in the third bar, followed by a four-bar “shout chorus” horn rise — too much to sample, chop up, and map out. The Motif horn patch works well enough; everything goes by fast, so timbre isn’t a real issue. I just have to make sure I play that passage crisply and in time, and match the section’s articulation.

Quick Change

I jump down to my digital piano and hit the theme melody in soli with the baritone sax, playing a vibes patch with my left hand. I keep my right hand on the horn patch so I can quickly pop in a few ensemble hits. Getting my left hand to swing on that crazy chromatic melody required some shedding.

Rock ’n’ Roll

Then I’m home free, which is a good thing because the camera whizzes by, and I really should be smiling. I jump to the organ (making sure the volume pedal is up) and scream out the last theme melody along with the real horns, then wail on G7 for about 30 seconds.

It took me some time to get comfortable with all these quick cues and changes, and I find I still have to concentrate hard to pull them off. But the smile you see now after a few months of shows is genuine — just a bit of terror, and lots of relief.