THE CAT'S NEW PAJAMAS

Brian Setzer, former leader of the Stray Cats, admits that he's no jazz-and-blues expert. "I don't know a lot of those songs, to be honest with you," he says. "But I think all that stuff is great, and it is there as a foundation. You take from it and learn from it. But I don't put it on an altar and worship it."

This innocent ignorance is a key ingredient in the success of Setzer's latest musical project--a seventeen-piece big band. It goes without saying that the Brian Setzer Orchestra is the only group of its kind to feature excellent jazz players led by a rockabilly guitarist and vocalist. What's more surprising is that the band is actually quite good.

The project got its start in 1992, when Setzer was living in Santa Monica, California. At the time, his next-door neighbor was jazz saxophonist Michael Acosta, who held weekly practice sessions at his home with members of his quintet. "I was walking by one night, and Mike yelled, `Hey, Setzer, want to jam?'" Setzer recalls. "So I brought my guitar over and they stuck a chart in front of me, not thinking I could read it. And I kind of did okay with it. It was a Miles Davis chart or something, and you could tell those guys went, `Oh, wow. Well, the rock-and-roll guy really might know some music.'"

After Setzer became a regular at the Acosta jams, he began to think about how he could incorporate jazz into his own music. "Eventually I told Mike about my idea, to do this sort of rocking big band," he says. "He basically tried to talk me out of it. He pointed out that big bands died because it is too expensive. Too many people's schedules to coordinate--it would never work out."

Setzer persisted, however, and Acosta eventually agreed to try to make the dream a reality. Teaming with trombonist Mark Jones, Acosta recruited players from the L.A. jazz community, including two former alumni of Frank Zappa's orchestras, brothers Bruce and Steve Fowler. Setzer concedes that he knew nothing of Bruce Fowler's work with Zappa, or of his more recent membership in the Toshiko Akioshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band. As a result, he wasn't intimidated by stepping into the players' league. Along with Acosta and Jones, Setzer plunged headlong into writing songs and charts and learning the intricacies of counterpoint and harmony that are a necessity in arranging for a big band.

According to Setzer, he didn't have any great hopes for the ensemble. "What I thought would happen was that we would play a couple of shows and have fun--that's why we did this," he says. "But I knew it was really good, and within three or four shows we landed a record deal. Then we went out and did a three-week tour of the States. And you know, the record [The Brian Setzer Orchestra, on Hollywood Records] is doing pretty well, and now we're going back out again. I've been surprised that it's been so mobile--that we actually have been able to take it on the road. I know it was a chunk of money to get it going. But they're paying us to do it now, so that's really all that matters, wouldn't you say?"

After helming the orchestra for the past year, even Setzer is beginning to sound like a jazz aficionado. For instance, he notes that very few listeners have picked up on the short lines from Duke Ellington's "Take the `A' Train" and "Monk's Dream," by Thelonious Monk, that the musicians injected into a pair of tracks on the album. "Most people don't even catch that," he boasts. "They just sort of think of it as a song."

Even if fans and rock critics aren't catching the subtleties in Setzer's big-band music, most listeners agree that the Orchestra is his most intriguing outfit since the Stray Cats went into limbo. Still, Setzer says that some hardcore rockabilly fans haven't quite figured out what he's been doing. "But why can't I change a little bit?" he counters. "I'm growing musically, and it's time to try something a little different now. I'm not making drastic changes. I mean, I'm not playing reggae. I'm taking a lot of my roots and a lot of my swing sensibilities and putting them in front of the big band."

The 10th Annual Winter Park Jazz and American Music Festival, with the Neville Brothers, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the BoDeans, David Benoit and Sarah McLachlan. 10:30 a.m. Saturday, July 23, Winter Park Ski Area, $25-$47, 290-

 
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