One of the most beguiling ambient tracks you’ll ever hear—one worthy of Eno, Fripp, or Glass—is buried in the soundtrack to the SNES video game Donkey Kong Country. “It feels so romantic and melancholy and grand,” saxophonist Grace Kelly tells JazzTimes of “Aquatic Ambiance,” a piece of music packaged in cartoon ape imagery and sold to children in 1994. “When I hear that song, I feel so many things inside. I feel like anything’s possible. If someone heard this and didn’t think of themselves as a gamer, they might be incentivized to be like, ‘This music sounds so deep and gorgeous. What could be going on in the game and in the story?’”
“Aquatic Ambiance” is so enrapturing that the 8-Bit Big Band, a New York jazz/pops orchestra featuring anywhere from 30 to 65 people, covered it on their 2019 album Choose Your Character! But if you’re looking for irony, you won’t find it here. The 8-Bit Big Band’s dogged leader, Charlie Rosen, is dead serious about what he calls the “Great Video Game Songbook.” The ensemble’s third and latest album, 2020’s Backwards Compatible, which features top-shelf soloists like Kelly, baritone saxophonist Leo P., and bassist Adam Neely, consists of selections from Kirby Super Star, Sonic the Hedgehog, and other AAA titles.
Running a band this size for such a niche purpose is “a labor of love, that’s for sure,” Rosen says. “It’s expensive, but it’s something I think is worth doing. I contract it all, and I know enough incredible musicians here in New York that can come in and just sight-read it and make it happen.” With ample preparation time—and help from a copyist—the lifelong gamer arranges, conducts, and records innovative spins on a hidden musical canon that’s arguably just booting up.
Big-money games today, like Red Dead Redemption 2, are filled with immersive music. But in the early ’90s, video-game music was extremely rudimentary. “You only had 45 seconds, and they had to loop, and they could only play three notes at the same time,” Rosen explains with a laugh. “It forced them to come up with these incredibly iconic melodies using the bare building blocks of music.” Working with such a hyper-limited palette, composers like Koji Kondo crafted tunes that even the staunchest non-gamer can hum from memory.
Although similar groups have performed video-game music before, Rosen—an arranger, music supervisor, and orchestrator with deep Broadway ties—wanted to go deeper than any of them. “I wanted to [form] the big band that reinterprets video-game music in the same way the great 20th-century jazz arrangers reinterpreted the Great American Songbook,” Rosen says, citing Nelson Riddle and Sammy Nestico as inspirations.
“One of my former teachers, Jim McNeely, said that if a song sounds good as a polka, you know you’ve got a good song,” says pianist Steven Feifke, the featured soloist on Backwards Compatible’s “Chrono Trigger Main Theme.” “Video-game music has forms and catchy melodies. In some cases, they’re not too dissimilar from American Songbook-type standards. They have elements in there that, on closer listen, catch the ear. I think what Charlie’s done is accentuate and bring out those elements.”
Not everyone in the ensemble is as avid a gamer as Rosen, but the video-game music community’s frothing enthusiasm won them over. “When Charlie Rosen approached me about guesting on these tracks, I fell in love with the music and the energy of the band and the audience,” Kelly says, citing a sold-out gig they played to 1,000 disciples at Berklee Performance Center in Boston.
“When you hear video-game music with full orchestration, it’s hard not to see 1) its lineage and 2) jazz music, because it’s very much from the tradition of jazz,” Adam Neely notes. “But also, you get to see people so pumped at live shows, in ways I’ve never seen in big-band music. People just lose their shit, to be honest.”
For some tunes on Backwards Compatible, the 8-Bit Big Band maximalizes the original arrangements in a blur of brass and synth pads; take “Super Mario Land Underground,” which Leo P. turns into a firebreather. On other pieces, though, the band takes a left turn. A swing version of “Want You Gone,” initially a glitchy, despondent ballad from Portal 2, is the most immediately likable tune here, due partly to singer Benny Benack III’s Sinatra-style charisma.
If you weren’t aware that video-game music has value and merit, the 8-Bit Big Band is here to straighten you out. Where should you go from here? Rosen calls 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time “the opus of early video-game music,” and the more recent Mario Kart 8 soundtrack is, in his word, “slamming.”
Asked the same question, Feifke draws a blank. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I like Charlie’s record!”