Monday, November 3, 2008

Music Review: Wolfgang's Big Night Out by The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Brian Setzer can travel through time. Want proof? Just look at his resume.

In the early 80s, when synthesizers and flaming pop metal ruled the radio airwaves, Setzer jumped back in time thirty years when he led the Stray Cats in a pseudo rockabilly 50s revival. It lasted for something like two albums and two quite famous and toe-tapping songs: “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” Then, for most folks, the felines on the fence got the boot thrown at them. They fell off. We all dusted our hands and nodded at a job well done.

But ten years later, in the mid-90s, Setzer went back even further in time, this time, sixty years. In a world filled with grunge, Setzer landed in the 30s, arriving just in time for the mini swing revival that crested prior to the millennium. His 17-piece big band helped to lead the movement and, for an alto sax player like me, gave me something really fun to get into. In fact, as the swing craze set the 90s ablaze, many folks had thoughts like this: “Wow. This is some good music.” Uh, yeah. What took y’all so long to realize that? Just look what they did to the Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town.”

Setzer and his band produced four studio albums (the third, The Dirty Boogie, is the best) and two Christmas CDs and a few live albums. The first Yule collection, Boogie Woogie Christmas, featured a big band, jazz rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” I remember seeing the track listing on the jewel box and thinking “Seriously?” Could a piece of music played in straight time ever come off as a swing number? The short answer: yeah, it can. And it’s really good.

So it was a natural progression for Setzer to travel back further in time and tackle an entire CD’s worth of classically inspired jazz pieces. And Wolfgang’s Big Night Out is the result. And you know what? These classical composers can swing, baby!

The album is basically a greatest hits record of classical songs and themes. “Take the 5th” kicks off the album and the music is only half the fun. All the song titles save one are themselves jazzy, Vegas-lounge inspired riffs off the original pieces. Thus, “Take the 5th” morphs from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And this piece could have come directly from Benny Goodman’s orchestra circa 1936. The thing about this track and most of the other tracks is Setzer’s guitar sound. It’s straight 50s and early 60s: very little reverb, very little distortion. It’s a clean sound although Setzer is not shy about the whammy bar. Not only do you get 30s and 40s era swing arrangements, you get 50s and 60s guitar sounds to boot.

“One More Night With You” is the only song title that’s not a direct take-off of the original piece. And this is the only vocals that Setzer delivers. The theme is Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” and the music is quite good. The lyrics are all about how Setzer doesn’t need all the bling associated with success if he has the woman of his dreams. The female backup singers channel the Andrew Sisters as they vocally prance their way behind Setzer’s warble.

You know Mozart can swing so the title track (AKA “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is pleasant and uneventful. Ditto for “Yes We Can Can” (I don’t have to tell you what that song is from, do I?) and “Sabre Dance,” a song that keeps its title and its intensity.

Setzer is an underrated guitarist. He’s flashy but not as well known as, say, Clapton, Page, or Van Halen. Setzer’s genius is in his picking techniques, put on glorious display in “Honey Man” (“Flight of the Bumblebee”). Yes, it would be much easier to do a Van Halen and play only with his fingers on the fret board and not pick each individual note. Heck, if Setzer did that, the song could have been played much, much faster. Instead, the song blows through your speakers at a rapid clip and Setzer picks every single note. Impressive.

Perhaps the most unexpected arrangement is the modifying of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” into “For Lisa,” a gypsy jazz piece that would have made Django Reinhardt proud. In the only song that doesn’t feature the entire band, Setzer and a few mates (violin, bass, drums, clarinet, and Setzer himself on acoustic guitar) present a soft, acoustic piece that evokes Parisian cafes at the turn of the century. Setzer’s albums are usually loud and bombastic. This little piece just floats along, making you smile and wanting some coffee.

To say that there are some missteps puts a damper on the tracks themselves. None of the songs are bad; some just work better than others. “Swingin’ Willie” (“William Tell Overture”) is a decent enough track but the swing seems a tad forced. The same is true for “Some River in Europe” (“Blue Danube”), a song that stays hews close to its classical inspiration, rarely veering into swing territory.

Wolfgang’s Big Night Out showcases one true blender song on an album full of them. By blender, I’m talking about when you put a bunch of different influences into a blender and turn it on. “1812 Overdrive” does that a bit at the beginning of the song as the Latin-tinged drums and percussion give you that Louis Prima, jump blues vibe. But the shining star of blender songs has got to be “Take a Break Guys” (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). If you count jazz and classical as the two base motifs, then you have to include Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” (tom-tom drums), surf guitar (at the beginning), an introduction that could have come from a James Bond film, and, then, the coup de grace: Jimi Hendrix. During the phenomenal guitar solo, the rhythm shifts to straight rock time and Setzer begins to shred, a la mid-70s rock gods like Terry Kath (Chicago) and Joe Perry (Aerosmith). The horns come back in for the second half of the solo but then Setzer breaks out the wah-wah pedal and does his best Hendrix impersonation (think "All Along the Watchtower" among others). From there on out, he keeps the wah-wah going but funkifies it, just like you’d hear in an early 70s Isaac Hayes tune. As much fun as the other eleven tracks are, this is the track to take home and share.

A recommendation: I first heard this CD while driving in my car. As such, I couldn’t just pick up the CD case and look at the title of the song whilst driving at sixty-miles-per-hour. So, the fun thing was to try and determine, as quickly as possible, which classical piece was Setzer’s inspiration. Some are easy: Beethoven’s 5th and "Take the 5th" both start out with the same four notes. Some are much more fun. If you’ve already bought this CD, try this: put away the track listing, set your CD player to random, and just revel in the fun. You’ll be tapping your toe in no time.

And speaking of time, I wonder where Setzer time travels next? Gregorian chants as jazz songs? In Setzer’s capable hands, anything is possible.


David Cranmer said...

Scott, Thanks for reminding me of Brian Setzer. He's an incredible talent and somehow I forget to look for his cds when I'm in the store... Jump Jive An' Wail is a favorite of mine.

Scott D. Parker said...


Jump Jive and Wail is on his 1998 CD, The Dirty Boogie. And, for a crime aficionado like you and me, pay special attention to "Hollywood Nocturne." It's a hard-boiled novel in music. Tres cool.