Paul Shaffer is a smiling showman, a happy-go-lucky, ring-a-ding entertainer-bandleader-pianist recognizable from television stints with David Letterman (33 years between daytime and nighttime shows until 2015), Saturday Night Live (1976-80) and Netflix’s 2015 A Very Murray Christmas with old pal Bill Murray. Joviality and effusion illuminate every note of every song he chooses; decisions based on the Canadian-born Shaffer’s love of vintage rock, roll, and soul.
“I think that’s what comes through most, my signature if you will, no matter what I’m playing,” says Shaffer. “When I put the fingers on the keys ... I don’t know … I was never a record-buying guy and learned everything by ear, so, if I have a 'sound,' it’s that feeling of first hearing and loving a song.”
Such joy guides Paul Shaffer & the World's Most Dangerous Band, his new album with said-Letterman ensemble whose release precedes the keyboardist’s first gigs since the boisterous Blues Brothers tour of 1980. Then again, playing five nights a week live in a television studio is no joke, either. “These shows should be an eye-opener: traveling, relating to live audiences. I mean, we loved playing in The Late Show studio and having your stuff already set up. It was like playing in a lounge.”
Beyond the lounges (“Ontario’s Holiday Inns”) and adoration of rocking vintage Americana (“I imagined the streets of New York from Four Seasons songs, streets way different than mine in Canada”), Shaffer’s history is a road map of genres, from show tunes to jazz, the latter of which he plays to this day.
“Theater was really my first calling, the gig that brought me to America,” Shaffer says about playing piano for vocal stage auditions and being heard by Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz. “Stephen liked me; made me the musical director for Toronto’s Godspell [with Martin Short and Gilda Radner], brought to New York to record the movie’s sound track, then did the same with his The Magic Show.” Schwartz dug Shaffer’s style of using piano as a percussive instrument, as the playwright’s scores were inspired by the rock-n-soul of Elton John and Laura Nyro. “Those two were favorites of mine,” Shaffer says. “That blend of R&B and rock touches my soul.”
So did jazz touch Shaffer via Toronto-turned-Manhattan avant-garde guitarist Tisziji Munoz, whose improvisational largesse titillated the young pianist while in college. “Tisziji was playing on a wall at a Toronto deli, just riffs on standards from the '40s. We wound up jamming at a studio in my university and kept going, teaching me modal Coltrane stuff.” Shaffer later played on several Munoz albums featuring free-jazz masters Rashid Ali and Pharoah Sanders, such as 2013’s Divine Radiance Live!. “If Tisziji calls and I’m free, I’m there.”
A session man at heart, having played for Barry Manilow, Yoko Ono, Todd Rundgren, Frankie Valli, and such (“they didn’t always spell my name right, but the checks cleared”), Shaffer tried for a moment to smell the roses after Letterman ended his Late Show run in 2015. “Yes, we keep steady contact; at least one meal a month,” Shaffer says of his old pal Dave. The pianist thought he’d enjoy retirement until he found himself “bored out of my mind” after a year. That’s when legendary record man Seymour Stein, who created the Sire label and first signed Madonna, Ramones, and the Talking Heads, came calling with an offer.
“ 'Shouldn’t you be making records and touring?’ Seymour said. He was right, so I got Stein’s right-hand man, [producer] Richard Gottehrer, whose records for Robert Gordon and Joan Armatrading I played on in the '70s, and we were off to the races.”
Just as John Belushi and Dan Akroyd did when bringing together the intense rocking lot that was the Blues Brothers (“Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn – these guys were the cream of the crop and nightly it was like you were playing for your life”), Shaffer brought together the best New York City players, who, like him, could play by ear and know his rock-soul repertoire like they know their Social Security numbers. “I want to know that if I yell, 'Hey Jude' key of D, that guy can play it,” Shaffer says of Dangerous Band-ers Felicia Collins, Anton Fig, Sid McGinnis, and Will Lee, the latter of whom can’t play the forthcoming Borgata gig because his Fab Faux Beatles-cover-ensemble play the Fillmore that night. “Will’s the best, so I had to bring in guys just as good to fill his shoes.”
Also expected to miss the show are Dangerous Band album vocalists Jenny Lewis, Dion (‘he’s the Wanderer, still sounds as great at 75 as he did at 20”), and Bill Murray, who was, in Shaffer’s words, “hard to pin down, but worth the wait as he didn’t sing his track comically but with real thought and emotion.”
Shaffer says he’s curious to see how the whole touring thing goes, as his energies have been geared toward a television studio setting for 33 years. “I’m always available for session work, and if this tour doesn’t work out, I can always hit the lounges and play. That might be fun.”Paul Shaffer & the World's Most Dangerous Band play at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Box at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City. $69-$65, TheBorgata.com.