Brian Setzer has made a career of bucking trends, going against the grain, ignoring popular culture, discarding rational thought, and, all the while, blowing people away. In a pop music era dominated by twenty-something contest winners and angst-ridden suburban kids, his latest project couldn't be any further removed from the mainstream. Recording centuries-old music with his 18-piece Rockin' Big Band and enlisting the help of a long-retired octogenarian, Setzer has achieved what is surely his finest musical hour with his upcoming Surfdog Records release, "Wolfgang's Big Night Out."
As a teenager, Brian Setzer drew inspiration from 50's rockabilly, fused it with new wave punk, and created a phenomenon with his band Stray Cats. During the 1990's (when grunge ruled the charts), he assembled his monstrous big band complete with a 13-piece horn section that ignited an international modern swing explosion, sold millions of albums, and racked up 3 Grammy wins. If that wasn't enough, Setzer found tremendous success in redefining Christmas music for a generation desperately desiring something new and exciting around the holidays.
Now in 2007, a most unlikely concept has resulted in his most profound work yet. Reaching back 300 years, Brian has taken on the daunting task of reinventing and revitalizing the world's greatest melodies of all time. We're talkin' Mozart.... Beethoven.... Tchaikovsky.... Mendelssohn...... all the greats. It's one thing to do straight versions of these timeless classics, staying true to the original arrangements, but that would be too easy. The challenge proved to be in taking these melodies that everybody on the planet is intimately familiar with, coming up with completely new parts, add a smokin' hot guitar, and pray that it all makes sense!
The opening bars of "Take The 5th", a rollicking and swinging adaptation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, lay all fears to rest. As the album progresses through its 12 incredibly executed tracks, with Setzer taking on such masterpieces as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," "The 1812 Overture," "The Blue Danube," and "The William Tell Overture," you soon realize that this counter-intuitive mix of disparate musical styles was somehow always meant to be. While the album is predominantly instrumental, there are two excellent standout vocal tracks, "One More Night With You" (based on Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King") and "Honey Man" (based on Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee"), which round out the collection nicely.
Asked about the new arrangements, Setzer laughs, "This isn't kid stuff. It's a lot of fun to listen to, but the music is incredibly complex. You've got plus-9 and flat-5 chords flying around with passing tones and multiple key changes within a single section. It's hard to keep up!" Fortunately, he's got the band and the chops to do just that.
How do you bring an idea like this from conception to completion? "The first step," says Setzer "is to write down the names of every piece of music that comes to mind. Then the filtering begins. You figure out which of these epics can be broken down into melodic sections that will fit within a modern song structure that's fun and rocks. Once I've got a song I think I can work with, I need to come up with original parts that not only frame the classic melody in a new way, but can also stand up and hold its own, musically." No easy feat when you're dealing with music that has survived hundreds of years and has been ingrained into our very being.
"Once I've got a road map of where I think the song should go," Brian continues "we sit down and write out all of the different parts that each musician has to play in order to get that BSO sound." When it comes to writing out the arrangements and horn charts for the big band, Brian typically does a lot of the heavy lifting. This time around, however, a crazy idea sparked. "On one of my Christmas albums," he recalls, "we did a version of 'The Nutcracker Suite' that was done back in the 50's by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. It gave me a thought: 'wouldn't it be cool if we could get the guy who wrote that chart to write some of this classical stuff?!'" Great idea Brian, but that was over 50 years ago! Is the guy even around anymore?
It turns out, after a little bit of research, that Frank Comstock is alive and well in Huntington Beach, California. Brian remembers, "I called him up out of the blue and said, 'Frank, how would you like to write a couple of charts for my new big band album?' He was surprised and flattered to be asked, but said he hadn't written a note in over 20 years and didn't think he could do it anymore."
After over an hour on the phone just talking about the musical and stylistic approach he wanted for the new project, Brian convinced the 84-year-old orchestrator that he might still have it in him to come up with something fantastic. Frank finally acquiesced and agreed to take a shot with one or two of Brian's ideas.
Two became three, which led to four, five, then six, and finally seven! Frank turned out to be a chart writing machine who hadn't lost a step in all those years of inactivity. The man, whose diverse musical contributions include "Dragnet," "Adam 12," and "Rocky & Bullwinkle" (among a slew of 40's and 50's big band masterpieces), was now back, in top form, only this time with the twist and direction provided by a pompadoured and heavily tattooed rock star.
"What I love about Frank," says Brian "is that he was around doing this swing and big band stuff when it was edgy and dangerous. We look back at the swing era and think that it was all Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo, but there was a real experimental and adventurous side too. That's the world that Frank came from and it comes out in his charts, including the ones he did for this album." The process worked brilliantly. Comstock dragged the melodies into the 1940's and 50's, then Brian would take Frank's work, bring a rock and roll sensibility to it, and presto, thoroughly modern takes on 200 to 300-year-old songs played by an 18-piece big band. Go figure.
Once the charts were done, the foundation was laid with drums, slap bass, and horns. It really wasn't until this point that Brian knew whether or not what was written was any good. Fully satisfied, it was then up to Brian to come up with the guitar parts that would ultimately bring the songs to life. "That was one of the toughest parts for me on this album," adds Brian. "It's one thing when you're soloing over a blues or jazz progression, but this is something altogether different. More than ever before, I had to really pay attention to what was going on underneath my playing. You'd think that a piece is moving along in a certain direction and then the chords take a strange turn forcing you to make adjustments. Making sure that everything flowed and made sense musically was a big challenge on this record."
Without question, this is Brian's finest hour with the orchestra. "Wolfgang's Big Night Out" truly sounds like no album he (or anyone else for that matter) has ever made. Of course, there is plenty of material here that bears the trademark BSO sound his fans have continued to clamor for, as well as pure blazing "how-the-hell-did-he-do-that" guitar work.
Yes, once again, Brian Setzer has taken a wholly unconventional and unprecedented approach to a concept that goes against any traditional music industry thought of what can be successful in today's marketplace. And because of that, we now get the shear joy of listening to it -- Thanks Brian!
How did this onetime Long Island punkabilly kid rise to international fame? Easy: hard work, talent, and the same never-say-die attitude that has always stood him out from the crowd. As an underage club crasher, Setzer gave equal time to Manhattan’s swank jazz clubs and downtown rock dives. From these diverse experiences he emerged with a unique look, something like a tangle of Eddie Cochran and Sid Vicious after a motorcycle wreck, and a sound unlike any heard before. By combining vintage rockabilly with the attitude of modern punk and the polish of postbop jazz, Setzer staked out his territory and multiplied his creative options.
His first step was to move to England and unleash the Stray Cats, whose ferocious shows shot them to international prominence. Three Top Ten singles powered their first album, Built for Speed, to the top of the charts. And that was just the beginning: When the Cats scattered, Setzer pursued his own projects, with collaborators as diverse as the ultimate artist/producer, Phil Ramone, and the conscience of the Clash, Joe Strummer. He tested the waters of Texas blues and Rat Pack jive. Along the way he sold millions of records, was immortalized as a character on "The Simpsons," had a series of actual casino chips bearing his name, was bestowed the honor of playing for the President of the United States at the White House, and built a reputation as one of the world’s most respected guitarists – he even supervised the launch of his own series of Gretsch “Brian Setzer Model” signature guitars, including last year’s new “Black Phoenix” model. Yet even with his Gretsch affiliation, the Gibson guitar company has singled him out for a prestigious Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even with all that he has achieved, the Brian Setzer Orchestra was and remains his glory: an ensemble of world-class musicians, playing state-of-the-art charts, and blowing away jazz hipsters as well as families out for a fun night. Their sound, as groundbreaking as the rockabilly revival that Setzer had launched previously with the Stray Cats, earned three Grammy Awards, two for Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Sleepwalk,” from the multi-platinum The Dirty Boogie in 1998 and “Caravan,” from VaVoom, in 2000) and one for Best Pop Performance (“Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” also from The Dirty Boogie, 1998). Critics, too, were dazzled by this unprecedented fusion of big-band swing and rock swagger: After staggering home from a BSO show in December 2003, a journalist declared, “The show was more than an extravaganza. It was a party – in every sense of the word.