In case someone isn’t familiar with the term, “Backwards Compatible” refers to the ability of a new technology to use material from its predecessor. A Blu-Ray player that plays DVDs is backward compatible. It is a perfect name for the third release of the 8-Bit Big Band, a New York City orchestra arranging and performing video game themes as big bold jazz.
Video game themes, like movie soundtracks and TV jingles, spring from the minds of session musician composers, many of whom have jazz careers when they aren’t trying to make ends meet. From the earliest video game themes that were nothing more than a right hand on the electronic keyboard to the much heralded sound tracks for modern games now often released on vinyl, there is a whole lot of jazz to be brought out of these tunes.
The 8-Bit Big Band is large, 30-65 members, with a string section that credits eighteen violinists, it is a self described Jazz/Pops orchestra of the old school. The sound does harken back to those pops records that were so ubiquitous in the 60s and 70s. That isn’t normally a style you would associate with young people but it is a proven vehicle for exploring the works of a specific genre or artist and it lends itself perfectly to the material here. The arranger has all the resources they need for giving each section of a complex theme exactly the substance it requires. That arranger, by the way, is Charlie Rosen, also the bandleader he brings his vision to life amazingly. There is an inherent silliness to jazzing up video game music but this is a professional, and even moving, set.
The earlier releases included universally known themes, as in from games I recognized as Gen X, and there is some attempt at that here, like the closing Super Mario World End theme. A YouTube comment on the original describes it as “one of the purest happiness sounds of my childhood” and it is in fact a marvelously nostalgic melody. The amount of excellent material, much of it very personal to a band that spans three generations of gamers, must be hard to sift through. 14 tracks include themes from games with which I was familiar, and many I wasn’t.
One result of branching out across consoles and decades is that there are now lyrics to some of these themes. I thought at first Benny Bennack III had composed the clever lyrics to “I Want You Gone”, from Portal 2 , but they are sung almost jazzily in a female vocal over the electronic original. Bennack presents it in a lounge crooner style that is a perfect fit. I recognized several other names from among the busy young musicians of New York, perhaps the only place where a group like this is possible. A band of this size is a community effort.
If you know any young, or not so young gamers, this would make an excellent gift. If you are yourself a gamer this album in your AirPods will transform your daily journey across town into a happy quest.