in performance: tower of power

baritone saxophonist stephen doc kupka

“I know, I know,” barked saxophonist Emilio Castillo to a section of seated patrons at last night’s hotwired performance by Tower of Power at Buster’s. “You thought this was some smooth jazz show. Well, there ain’t no Kenny G here tonight, folks.”

Indeed not. Bolstered by an electric front line of five horn men (which included band founder/leader Castillo on tenor sax), a riotously tight four man rhythm section and a vocalist, Larry Braggs, full of tireless soul stamina, TOP blasted through a 100 minute set ripe with deep pocket grooves, sterling R&B finesse and the kind of layered, percolating old-school funk that kept the music in frenetic motion.

The performance opened with the beefy title tune to the 1978 TOP album We Came to Play. And that the members did. The horn team (two trumpeters and three sax men) quickly established the show’s mood with rapid, brassy jabs as well as lusher, less frantic orchestration that has collectively been the band’s calling card for its 43 year history. And certainly, the numerous muscular solos of tenor saxophonist Tom Politzer, the funky honks from longstanding TOP baritone sax ace Stephen Doc Kupka and rapid fire dashes of flugelhorn and trumpet from Adolfo Acosta fueled such vintage fare as 1972’s Down to the Nightclub and 1973’s Get Yo’ Feet Back on the Ground as well comparatively newer workouts that included 1995’s Souled Out and 1997’s So I Got to Groove.

vocalist larry braggs

But what backed up the horns, while perhaps not as outwardly visible, was no less arresting. In the midst of the instrumental Walkin’ Up Hip Street, the horn section exited the stage, allowing the band to break itself down to the lean organ trio of keyboardist Roger Smith, recent guitar recruit Jerry Cortez and veteran drummer David Garibaldi. With Smith’s vibrant Hammond organ solo leading the way, the resulting jam offered an altogether different but equally vital groove.

Braggs covered all the r&b/funk bases with ease, from a cover of the Billy Paul soul staple Me and Mrs. Jones that gathered steam with each successive verse to an encore reading of TOP’s breakthrough hit You’re Still a Young Man that brought the singer, the brass and the rhythm section to a summery, soulful boil.

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