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The 8-Bit Big Band: Backwards Compatible

Jack Bowers By

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It's about time a big band turned its gaze to and focused its attention on the many memorable songs and melodies spawned by—video games? While it's true these make-believe themes may brook no comparison to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter or even Neil Diamond, they are at least Backwards Compatible. And from a musical point of view, most of them are surprisingly admirable, at least in the capable hands of Charlie Rosen and the 8-Bit Big Band—which, make no mistake, is a BIG Band, amplifying the usual brass, reeds and rhythm with a twenty-nine member string section and a trio of French horns. The band is so big, in fact, that acclaimed alto saxophonist Grace Kelly, who solos on "Hydrocity Zone," couldn't even crack the personnel list, nor could the album's five other guest artists.

Members of the digital generation should be especially tuned in to these quasi-electronic themes, taken as they are from such popular games as "Super Mario," "Kirby Super Star," "Pilot Wings," "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Zelda: Ocarina of Time," "Fire Emblem Fates" and others. Most feature a lone soloist (or soloists), with Kelly reappearing as vocalist on "Jump Up Super Star" from "Super Mario Odyssey." There are two more vocals, by guests Benny Benack III ("Want You Gone," from "Portal 2") and Tiffany Mann ("Snake Eater," from "Metal Gear Solid"), and back-up vocals behind Kelly on "Super Star" and a mysterious trumpeter on "Lost in Thoughts All Alone," from "Fire Emblem Fates." Could there be a trumpeter named Accent? Maybe so, as that's who is named as soloist on "Lost in Thoughts." Or perchance that's the name of the (also unlisted) vocal group.

Notwithstanding the fire and fury that precedes it, the album's decisive high point is saved for last: the melodic and swinging "Super Mario World End Theme." No soloists present or needed there, as the band rings down the curtain on a bright and pleasurable note reminiscent of the zaniest Warner Bros. cartoons from an earlier time. The opening "Chrono Trigger Main Theme," showcasing pianist Steven Feifke, is another all-out swinger (complete with rhythmic hand-clapping) that leaves quite a favorable impression, as does guitarist Rosen's more ethereal feature, "Dire Dire Docks," from "Super Mario 64." Speaking of Rosen, his charts (he arranged everything) are consistently enterprising and creative, well-suited to the material at hand. But even though he uses every tool at his disposal, and does it well, the mammoth string section is by and large superfluous on most numbers.

Singers Benack and Mann are impressive in their cameos (with Benack adopting a Sinatra groove), whereas Kelly is over-mic'ed and essentially incoherent on much of "Jump Up Super Star." Other notable solos are by tenor Sam Dillon (the fast-paced "Gourmet Race"), a baritone saxophonist identified only as Leo P. ("Super Mario Land Underground"), Zac Zinger (EWI on "Birdman") and bassist Adam Neely ("Saria's Song"). Still can't fathom what Buttonmasher (on "Metaknights Revenge") might be; best guess is a keyboard of some kind. Be that as it may, Backwards Compatible, unlike some other albums of recent vintage, is uniquely inspired and amply rewards repeated listening. In other words, despite its rather far-out premise, the music will most likely grow on you. Due credit for that to Rosen's fertile imagination, as well as to a BIG band that embraces the concept, apprehends its meaning and makes it not only plausible but memorable.

Track Listing

Intro to Album 3; Chrono Trigger Man Theme; Gourmet Race; Hydrocity Zone; Want You Gone; Metaknights Revenge; Super Mario Land Underground; Dire Dire Docks; Birdman; Lost in Thoughts All Alone; Saria’s Song; Snake Eater; Jump Up Super Star; Super Mario World End Theme.

Personnel

Charlie Rosen: leader, arranger, music director, guitar, banjo; Bryan Davis, Jay Webb, John Lake, Chloe Rowlands, Max Boiko, Danny Jonokuchi, Allison Philips: trumpet; Andrew Gould, Josh Plotner, Steve Kortyka: alto sax; Sam Dillon, Zac Zinger, Jordan Pettay, Carlos Elene: tenor sax; Adison Evans, Andrew Gutauskas: baritone sax; Jimmy O'Connell, Javier Nero, Rebecca Patterson, Ron Wilkens, Mariel Bildsten, Alex Jeun: trombone; Judy Lee, Elizabeth Martignetti, Jordan James, Kyra Sims: French horn; Sam Dillon, Zac Zinger: clarinet; Andrew Gould, Josh Plotner: flute; Adison Evans: bass clarinet; Lavinia Pavlish, Meltar Forkosh, Tomoko Akaboshi, Daniel Constant, Kevin Kuh, Matthew Beauge, Yumi Oshima, Camellia Hartman, Audrey Hayes, Ally Jenkins, Josh Henderson, Maria Im, Mary-Jo Stip, Erica Swindell, Ellie Goodman, Emily Gelineau, Eli Bishop, Danielle Breitstein: violin; Laura Sacks, Kenny Wang, Jarvis Benson, Tia Allen, Brian Thompson, Sarah Greene: viola; Susan Mandel, Alan Bisk, Jessica Wang, Kristine Kruta, Marta Bagratuni: cello; Dave Cinquegrana: guitar, banjo; Natalie Tenenbaum, Steve Feifke, Jake Silverman: keyboards; Adam Neely, Dan Chmielinski, Julia Adamy, Charlie Rosen, Bobby Wooten: bass; Jared Schonig, Bryan Carter: drums; Kevin Garcia: percussion; Liann Cline: harp; Danielle Gimbal, Charlie Rosen, Camellia Hartman: background vocals.

Album information

Title: Backwards Compatible | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Self Produced

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