By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With the exception of just a few -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the Tonight Show Orchestra -- big bands went out of fashion after World War II. Almost no one could afford the upkeep of a big band, and no one wanted anyone to try to. So the fact that Brian Setzer began one, and has kept it going for most of this decade, is a Herculean achievement. That he has made it a success is even more astonishing. The truth is, the Brian Setzer Orchestra may be about the most inimitable big band going since WWII, even though the market is now flooded with bands trying to do just that.
While Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago melded a certain big band-meets-rock ethic in the late '60s, Setzer's big band comes from a whole 'nother territory -- jump blues and swing. Setzer seems to have single-handedly triggered the whole swing-music revival, now an annoying trend. But unlike a hundred mediocre swing bands following fashion, Setzer's is the hottest act on record, bar none, swinging harder than a greedy home-run hitter. This is a 17-piece orchestra -- five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, drums, and "one very electric guitar." Meaning, this is the only true big band, in the 1940s sense -- a whole busload of musicians. He employs an upright slap bass, and the drummer uses a l940s-style drum kit with calfskin heads.
This isn't the first time Setzer has helped a dying genre stand up and dust itself off. In the early '80s, Setzer's Stray Cats triggered the whole rockabilly revival, before MTV got tired and moved on to something else. The man's a visionary: Any stylistic experiments Brian Setzer next attempts should be listened to with great interest by the clueless music industry. And it will listen, right before it rips Setzer off. When Interscope Records made Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst a vice president, they picked the wrong guy; no one at the label has a better track record than Setzer.
Apart from that, Brian Setzer is also a rock-guitar great in the school of flash. In his current incarnation -- which is separated from the last one by a few tattoos -- he plays jazz power chords, and he solos over jazz arrangements very few rock guitarists could comprehend, much less keep up with. He began this brave undertaking in 1992, against the grain of anything remotely commercial, and ended up making the consumers come to him. Three albums later -- last year's The Dirty Boogie most recently -- Setzer has declared, "The music won." Come hear Setzer and his group of virtuosos prove that point.