Drawing Inspiration And Repertoire From Sonic, Zelda, Super Mario, And More, The 8-Bit Big Band Strike Again With Astonishing Fourth Album Game Changer out November 10, 2023
When navigating the jazz world, it’s dangerous to go alone: take The 8-Bit Big Band.
Since 2018, they’ve spellbound audiences with interpretations of music from across the video game multiverse. Now, the jazz and pops orchestra — helmed by GRAMMY-winning composer and arranger Charlie Rosen — is back with their fourth album, Game Changer — due November 10, 2023 via Rosen’s Teamchuck Records.
Jazziz declared that the 8-Bit Big Band “is redefining the concept of a modern big band.” All About Jazz praised them for “embrac[ing] the concept… mak[ing] it not plausible but memorable.” And JazzTimes summed up the sprawling ensemble’s ambitious ethos: “Charlie Rosen is dead serious about what he calls the ‘Great Video Game Songbook.’”
Game Changer features reimagined classics from the soundtracks of Super Mario 3D World (“Super Bell Hill”), Final Fantasy 7 (“Tifa’s Theme”), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (“Song of Storms”), and other classic games across major platforms.
The 8-Bit Big Band’s fourth dispatch contains even more first-call musicians from the New York jazz scene. “You Wouldn’t Know,” from Lego Dimensions: Portal, features the acclaimed trumpeter and vocalist Benny Benack III. “Tifa’s Theme,” from Final Fantasy 7, features luminous trumpeter Chloe Rowlands of Westerlies fame, “Song of Storms” features the incredible Patrick Bartley, and “Last Surprise” featuring keyboard player and vocalist phenom Jonah Nilsson of the band Dirty Loops.
The guests on Game Changer also hail from the highest echelons of theater. After “Intro to Album 4,” a magisterial overture reminiscent of mid-century Broadway, vocalist Joel Waggoner brings a Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra-style panache to “Can You Feel the Sunshine?” from the 1997 Sega Saturn game “Sonic R.”
“I Wanna Take You For a Ride” hails from the seminal fighting game “Marvel vs. Capcom 2” — well, an eight-second loop of music therein, in which a woman sings the title on repeat, which has become something of a viral meme among gamers.
“When you’re selecting your character, there’s a four-bar loop,” Rosen explains. In response, “I had this idea of, What would the rest of the song sound like? If that is one line of the chorus, it would be cool to write the rest of the song.” The resultant horn arrangement channels the punch of the Bay Area R&B legends Tower of Power co-written with the up and coming contemporary funk/soul band Lawrence.
Gamers of all stripes know “Pollyanna,” which originates from the “Earthbound/Mother” game franchise. From its original context in an ‘80s synth pop idiom Rosen cannily pivoted to ripping gospel and R&B. “It’s very beloved in the video game world because the lyrics are incredibly positive,” Rosen says. “And so life-affirming that I thought it would be a great contemporary gospel tune.”
While Rosen is blazingly adept at stylistic cross-pollinations, he knows when to avoid messing with the formula, and play it straight. As such, he lifted “Super Bell Hill” from “Super Mario 3D World”; the 8-Bit Big Band performed it essentially a la carte.
“It’s not that big of a difference from the original,” Rosen says. “The more contemporary Mario games have already skewed toward having a lot of big band in their soundtrack, and this is just a nod to Nintendo’s recent developments.”
As he puts it in Game Changer’s liner notes, the format “matches quite well orchestrationally with the bright and colorful world of Super Mario.” And if you survey the 8-Bit Big Band’s discography, you’ll find other examples, like “Jump Up Superstar”; “Super Bell Hill” further illustrates the nexus of big band and the Mushroom Kingdom.
Old compatriot Benny Benack III, a renowned trumpeter and vocalist on the New York scene, joins the 8-Bit Big Band for “You Wouldn’t Know,” a witty selection from “Portal.” (The eagle-eyed gamer may remember that Benack crooned “Want You Gone,” from “Portal 2,” on the 8-Bit Big Band’s previous album, 2021’s Backwards Compatible.)
Like all the other songs from the “Portal” universe, “You Wouldn’t Know” was written by the great Jonathan Coulton. Once again, Rosen assumed the role of the transmuter, and flipped the script on “You Wouldn’t Know” from indie rock to big band jazz — this time modeled after Dean Martin’s arrangement of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.”
Featuring guest vocalist Aisha Jackson and guitar soloist Nir Felder, “Beneath the Mask” is a selection from the score of “Persona 5”; like its neighbors within the popular game, it’s a heady mix of neo-soul, jazz and funk. Rosen opted to push it beyond the boundaries of what he calls “a very chill background music theme,” and render it a hard-hitting big-band number — with abundant neo-soul flavor, as a nod to the original.
Within the DNA of “Mabe Village” — a music-box-style lullaby from 1993’s “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening” — Rosen perceived malleability. He spliced it with the approach of the legendary trumpeter, composer and arranger Neal Hefti — particularly the epochal “Lil’ Darlin,” originally recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra; trombonist Jimmy O’Connell contributes an inspired solo.
Composer Nobuo Uematsu looms large in the gaming realm, particularly for his contributions to the “Final Fantasy” series. From his canon, Rosen pulled “Tifa’s Theme,” a love overture from “Final Fantasy 7.” Soulful and sweet, the 8-Bit Big Band’s interpretation features Chloe Rowlands on flugelhorn, and a lavish string orchestra.
“Passing Breeze” reaches deeper into the past; it’s from “Outrun,” a graphically innovative racing game popular in arcades in the late 1980s. “The game has you cruising down the beaches of the West Coast,” Rosen describes; its engine is Jared Schonig, who lays down head-spinning solos.
“The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” resonated with a generation of gamers; by way of “Song of Storms,” Rosen saw fit to tip his hat to that classic title utilizing Patrick Bartley’s absolutely bombastic alto sax vocabulary. Again, he nudged it in a new direction — from the 3/4 sea shanty vibe of the original to a modal, post-bop feel a la Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter.
The album concludes thrillingly with “Last Surprise” — another selection from “Persona 5,” along with the aforementioned “Beneath The Mask”. The track is a co-arrangement with Button Masher — who won a GRAMMY in 2021 for his collaboration with the 8-Bit Big Band, “Meta Knight’s Revenge.”
Rosen and Button Masher tailored this arrangement for the virtuosic singer and keyboardist Jonah Nilsson, from the Swedish fusion group Dirty Loops — who have made waves on Jazz Internet for their reharmonized arrangements of contemporary pop music.
Game Changer was arranged and produced by Rosen himself — not only a GRAMMY winner, but a two-time Tony recipient. It was mixed by GRAMMY-winning engineer John Kilgore and mastered by the industry veteran Alan Silverman. Whether you’re more on the jazz or gaming side of the equation, Game Changer has something for you — context aside, it’s simply fantastic music played with imagination, virtuosity and panache.
“Every album, it gets tighter and tighter, and the band sounds better and better, and the quality goes up and up,” Rosen says with a smile. “And Game Changer is definitely no exception.”
- Intro to Album 4
- Can You Feel the Sunshine? (ft. Joel Waggoner) – from “Sonic R”
- I Wanna Take You for a Ride (ft. Lawrence) – inspired by “Marvel vs. Capcom 2”
- Pollyanna (ft. Alan H. Green) – from “Mother/Earthbound”
- Super Bell Hill – from “Super Mario 3D World”
- You Wouldn’t Know (ft. Benny Benack III) – from “Lego Dimensions: Portal”
- Beneath the Mask (ft. Aisha Jackson) – from “Persona 5”
- Mabe Village – from “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening”
- Tifa’s Theme (ft. Chloe Rowlands) – from “Final Fantasy 7”
- Passing Breeze – from “Outrun”
- Song of Storms (ft. Patrick Bartley) – from “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”
- Last Surprise (ft. Jonah Nilsson) – from “Persona 5”