Jazz for the Video Game Generation

An enterprising young arranger, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist, Charlie Rosen, leads a full-size orchestra that exclusively plays his own jazz-styled interpretations of themes from computer games.

Tom Buckley
Charlie Rosen with Pac-Man guitar. Tom Buckley

The 8-Bit Big Band
‘Game Changer’

Is it a sign of achievement to be proud of things that you have never done?  I’ve been to Las Vegas and Atlantic City many times but never dropped so much as a nickel in a slot machine, having made it a point not to gamble. Also, after being on this planet for more than 60 years, I have never played a video game — not even once.

Well, it turns out that’s my loss. Even though I’m resolutely certain I wouldn’t enjoy actually playing video games, I recently learned that I’ve been missing out by not listening to them. For roughly five years now, an enterprising young arranger, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, and, I assume, video game enthusiast, Charlie Rosen, has been leading what he calls the 8-Bit Big Band, a full-size orchestra that exclusively plays his own jazz-styled interpretations of themes from computer games.

This ensemble tours regularly, and it played two sold-out shows at Sony Hall off Times Square on December 8. The group has also released four albums: ”Press Start” (2018), “Choose Your Character” (2019), “Backwards Compatible” (2021) — which received a Grammy award for the track “Meta Knight’s Revenge” — and the new “Game Changer.” 

The latest album is especially ambitious in that it opens with its own equivalent to a main title theme, titled “Intro to Album 4.” This sounds like the overture to a Hollywood adaptation of a Broadway musical of the mid-1960s, i.e., musical theater ideas expanded into an orchestration much bigger than anything a producer could actually present on Broadway itself.

The 8-Bit Big Band at Sony Hall. Tom Buckley

Mr. Rosen works in many styles, and on almost every track I could recognize the point of inspiration, even though I had never heard any of these specific songs. Much of the show at Sony Hall recalled the jazzier side of soul — when big bands and horn sections were still part of pop music — such as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder in his “Key of Life” period. 

“I Wanna Take You For a Ride” is an impressive construct. It started as an eight-second loop from a 2000 game called “Marvel vs. Capcom 2” before Mr. Rosen worked with a pop band named Lawrence to reconstruct and expand this fragment into a full-length song with lyrics. It’s one of the highlights of the band’s repertoire. 

In listening to the original versions of these compositions on YouTube, some seem like they were constructed to sound completely mechanical, as if they were composed by AI and performed by autotune. The 8-Bit Big Band is refreshingly analog and mostly acoustic — and deliberately old school. 

The highlight of “Game Changer” is “You Wouldn’t Know” (from “Portal”), and that’s despite the lyrics not making sense to me: “Things change when they don’t replace your core / It feels so strange not to hate you anymore.” I don’t even have any idea if they’re even supposed to make sense within the context of the game. 

Mr. Rosen has reimagined the song with an arrangement that sounds like vintage 1960 Nelson Riddle, using Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” as a countermelody — and a declaration of his own Rat Pack intentions. Benny Benack III, the trumpeter and vocalist, is the featured singer and helps keep everything sound authentic rather than contrived.

In other guises, Mr. Rosen has worked mostly on Broadway, and he and his musical partner, Bryan Carter, also born in 1990, have won a Tony Award and now a Grammy nomination for the orchestrations to “Some Like It Hot” — also a highly recommended show, in which they give an invaluable assist to composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, helping their excellent score maintain a legitimate, 1930s big band sound. 

A month ago at Birdland, Messrs. Rose and Carter launched another venture, the “Cartoonestra,” which also packages swing and vintage jazz styles in another way that makes them palatable to audiences their age and younger. As the title suggests, this band works from music composed for animated films — though not of the vintage Carl Stallings/Raymond Scott variety, but rather mostly television cartoons of the 1990s and onwards.

Ripped Pants” was originally heard on “Spongebob Squarepants” in a 1950s Brill Building style a la “Leader of the Pack,” but Messrs. Rosen and Carter retro-fitted it into a vibe closer to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, as a feature for crooner (and producer) Christian Wiggs. 

After listening to and enjoying all four of the albums and numerous videos by the 8-Bit Big Band, I’m still not any closer to wanting to actually play a video game, though I did nose around for audio of how these songs sounded as originally heard in those games. I have to say that I wasn’t impressed, which makes Mr. Rosen’s achievement all the more impressive by comparison.    

If Mr. Rosen’s own intention was to create music that everybody would enjoy while exposing younger generations to classic jazz and big band sounds, then he’s playing a game in which we are all winners.


The New York Sun

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