After recharging rockabilly with the Stray Cats in the 1980s, then helping spark a swing revival in the ’90s, Brian Setzer is going even further back in musical history on his latest CD — 200 years back, to be exact.
On “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” out this week, the Brian Setzer Orchestra gives a big-band beat to the classics. Led by the blond, pompadoured Setzer and his twanging Gretsch guitar, the 18-piece band jazzes up everything from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (renaming it “Take the 5th”) to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” (complete with cannon fire, just like the original score).
To Setzer, the long-haired composers were the rock stars of their day.
“Everybody takes these classical composers so seriously. These guys are like big party boys,” Setzer told The Associated Press in his adopted hometown of Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife of two years.
Of the CD’s title, Setzer says, “I had this idea of all these guys out there partyin’. So it’s ‘Wolfgang’s Big Night Out.’ “
On the 12 tracks, Setzer reinterprets such well-known themes as Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (which becomes “Swingin’ Willie”). On Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” (redone as a boogying “Honey Man”), Setzer’s fingers fly across the fretboard in dazzling runs.
“These are hit records from the 1700s. That’s why it’s lasted so long, it’s that good,” Setzer says.
Still a stylish Cat
Arriving for an interview looking like he’s ready to take the stage with the ’50s throwback Stray Cats, the 48-year-old is resplendent in black: boots, trousers, T-shirt and a sport jacket that covers his heavily tattooed arms. His wraparound sunglasses hang from a chunky gold chain around his neck.
Setzer recalls fooling around with “The Blue Danube” waltz on his guitar as the genesis for “Wolfgang.”
“And I played it for my wife, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good, what you got goin’ on,”’ Setzer says. He quickly recorded the bit at a nearby studio for his manager, who suggested Setzer write the entire score — an idea he resisted at first.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work,” says Setzer. He eventually completed the arrangement for a full band and decided to make the idea work for an album.
For help, Setzer turned to veteran composer and arranger Frank Comstock, who worked with Les Brown and Doris Day and whose TV credits include “Adam-12,” “McHale’s Navy” and “Rocky and His Friends.” The Brian Setzer Orchestra covered Comstock’s adaptation of “The Nutcracker Suite,” which he did for Brown in 1957, on its “Boogie Woogie Christmas” CD and performs it in concert.
“The only guy I could think of who could understand this would be Frank Comstock. I didn’t know if he was still alive. I said, ‘Can we see if he’s still around?’ So he calls me. He’s 84 years old. And he was just kind of a funny, cranky old guy. And he says, you know, ‘I haven’t written a chart since ‘Adam-12,’ 1972,’ or something. ‘I don’t know if I can still do this,”’ Setzer recalls.
“I said, ‘Well, if you want to try ... here.’ Within a week I get a full score back, and the score is, you know, it’s about 2 feet long and about 90 pages,” Setzer says.
‘I just play my guitar’
etzer, who started playing guitar growing up on New York’s Long Island, says it was no problem adding hot licks to classical music.
“I just play it my style, you know. It’s funny, because people ask, ‘When you do the big bands, is it different from rockabilly?’ Well now here’s classical. The answer is, I just play my guitar,” Setzer says.
The Stray Cats recently reunited for their first performances in the U.S. in 15 years, touring with the Pretenders and ZZ Top this summer.
“It was just fantastic,” Setzer says of being on stage again with drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker to play hits such as “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.”
“I can tell you, in the ’80s, we didn’t have a whole arena full of people on their feet yellin’.”
After the Stray Cats broke up, Setzer scored with swing, picking up three Grammy Awards, including one for his version of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive An’ Wail.” He met his wife, Twin Cities native Julie Reiten, when she answered an ad for a background singer for his group.
“And I said, ‘Man, if she can’t sing, I’m gettin’ her phone number,’ because she was beautiful. And we just hit it off,” says Setzer, who has three children from two previous marriages.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra, including his wife, hits the road for its sixth annual Christmas Extravaganza tour starting Nov. 17 in Verona, N.Y. Setzer will be on the road until New Year’s Eve and plans to celebrate Christmas the first week of January, as has become his custom.
“It’s one of these tours that people won’t let me stop doin’. It just keeps gettin’ bigger and bigger,” Setzer says.