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Bandleader Mark Tortorici, a self-described 'live-music junkie,' keeps local Burbank hot spot jumpin'

Either with his group the Hollywood Combo, or manning the turntables as DJ, Tortorici is carrying the torch for music

March 09, 2012|By Jonny Whiteside
(Tim Berger/Staff…)

Bandleader-promoter Mark Tortorici is an old-school showman. For the past seven years, the sharp-dressed, sweet-talking swinger has been presenting a wild variety of live music acts at Burbank nightclub Joe's Great American Bar and Grill and packing the joint every Monday and Tuesday, two of toughest nights for any working musician hoping to pull a crowd. But for Tortorici, known to his avid cult of jitter-bugging followers as Torch, it's simply standard operating procedure.

Whether headlining the room with his own nine-piece rhythm and blues group, the Hollywood Combo, or manning the turntables as DJ between sets by local Western swing favorites the Lucky Stars, Tortorici curates an always-exceptional weeknight experience.

With offbeat touring acts like Canadian hillbilly throwbacks Petunia & the Vipers (yes, Petunia is actually a man) or New Orleans Tin Pan Alley specialist Linnzi Zaorsky, Tortorici's knack for showcasing disparate musical genres reflects an unusual attitude, best summed up by his own self-description as “a live-music junkie.”

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“My philosophy is to book the bands and music that I really like,” he said. “I think I have a good taste in music and if you do it with honesty and heart, people will respond to that. They'll support that.”

That flexibility has allowed Tortorici to carve out several successful careers. His popularity at Joe's has expanded to four consecutive nights there, from a Sunday blues party through the recently inaugurated Rockabilly-Roots Wednesdays. As a bandleader, he makes two international tours a year, storming through Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary — even Russia. He runs his own music label, Swingin' Records, and also works closely with venerable R&B legend Big Jay McNeely, a volcanic tenor saxophonist who has been an important figure in Los Angeles music since 1949.

That alliance has resulted in some spectacular music. When McNeely turned 80 in 2007, Tortorici's Hollywood Combo accompanied him on what turned out to be one of the wildest performances the sax man had made in decades. Neither the band nor the dancers could keep up with McNeely that night. And that's what keeps them coming back — the prospect of hearing what Tortorici calls “something genuine.”

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