It has now been almost three months since Jimmy Fallon took over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno. While there’s a lot I could say about the show itself, not to mention its return to New York City, I am but a lowly music columnist and not a television critic. I would, therefore, like to turn your attention instead to the awesomeness that occupies the space directly to Jimmy’s left: the Legendary Roots Crew!
As a musician, I find most of the music on television pretty unbearable. The medium has so much potential, yet we’re constantly subjected to either teens singing karaoke (“American Idol”) or underdressed and over-rehearsed pop stars that somehow manage to flub lip-syncing. Even the great TV bands (shout out to Lenny Pickett on “Saturday Night Live”) don’t get enough airtime to truly show what they’re capable of. On “The Tonight Show,” however, the Roots are an equal and malleable player in the show’s comedy dynamic. They bring a versatility of musical style and a penchant for improvisation that’s just as unique now as it was when they were on “Late Night” and when their first album dropped back in 1993.
The most obvious example of this ad-lib ethos is the show’s popular “Freestylin’ with The Roots” segment, in which Fallon collects random information about different audience members and the Roots must come up with a song on the spot. To make it even more interesting, Fallon usually yells random instructions such as “Play it like a Rolling Stones song!” or, more recently, “Play it like an Irish jig!” Only the most creative musicians (of any style) can maintain that mix of fluidity and control night after night, but it takes a special type to accomplish it all while being humorous.
The Roots are able to interact so seamlessly with Fallon’s comedy that I sometimes forget they aren’t just one incredibly funny guy. Last week, Jimmy unveiled a picture of the truck he’s going to buy, and the Roots randomly butted in with Van Halen’s “Jump.” Jimmy shot them a quizzical look, and Steve Higgins, the show’s announcer, suggested they rename the song “Truck” and adapt the lyrics accordingly. A gag was born. For the rest of the show, Jimmy would randomly whip out the photo, forcing the Roots to chime in with “Truck” at the most inopportune moments—it reminded me in many ways of the loose interplay between comedy legends such as Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis. At one point, Fallon even got Roots keyboardist James Poyser to play his melodramatic thank-you-note-writing music with the keyboard sound used in “Jump” (from an Oberheim OB-X, in case you were wondering).
Now, I’m not naïve—I realize that the band rehearses constantly and that late-night shows are, in general, fairly scripted. For me, that doesn’t change the fact that I get to see an amazing live band surprise me in creative ways every night. The Roots are able to display their full musical range while being incredibly funny, and, best of all, they do it without completely selling out. Please take note, television programmers—putting the focus on creative and adaptable live musicians doesn’t hurt ratings. It helps them.
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.