Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am


Given that Brian Setzer is regularly nominated for Grammy awards for instrumental recordings - and has won twice - it is a little surprising that he hasn't previously made an all-instrumental album.

Nevertheless, Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL! - a lamentable title but a good CD on the Surfdog label - is the first album for which he has not recorded vocals. For fans of his jazz-meets-rockabilly-meets-country guitar playing, the treat has been worth waiting for.

Setzer kept his jazzier leanings on a relatively tight rein during the Stray Cats phase of his career, but they became much more overt once he began playing swing tunes in a big-band context with the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The fingerprints of several of the masters are on his style, and more than usually evident here - Tal Farlow, Les Paul, Barney Kessel - and also other players who crossed the line from country music and rock 'n' roll sessions such as Jimmy Bryant and Hank Garland.

According to Setzer it was not his original intention to make an all-instrumental record, but that was the way the sessions evolved. 'I wrote seven songs with lyrics and then all of a sudden I just took a turn and started fooling around with Blue Moon of Kentucky, except without any vocals. I just started playing melody chords and thought, 'Wow, this is pretty cool!' I had never done an instrumental record, but I thought now's the time,' he says.

He chose an eclectic bunch of tunes. Cherokee is a swing standard from the 1930s written by British bandleader Ray Noble. Gene Vincent's Be Bop A Lula is taken at a slow swinging pace rather than at the more typical frenetic rock 'n' roll tempo, and Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky has Setzer's right-hand fingerpicking country style, but with the left holding down chord substitutions that are most definitely jazz.

It is the original compositions that are most striking on this album though, and this time Setzer might get that Instrumental Grammy nomination for something he wrote himself.

Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown sounds like exactly that, Go-Go Godzilla is another of his movie evocations, and the use of a vibraphone on Intermission recalls Hank Garland's hugely influential Jazz Winds From A New Direction recordings with a young Gary Burton.

Although Setzer occasionally dives back into straight-ahead rockabilly, it's hard to see him making a mainstream jazz guitar album, but this has enough of that side of him to keep the more broadminded listener who likes interesting chords played with a bit of attitude happy. Well worth checking out.

Take Three Three CDs of Brian Setzer at his best.

Built For Speed (EMI, 1982): an American release compiling the strongest tracks from the first two Stray Cats albums, which were released first in Britain. Dave Edmunds' 1980s British production approach to songs firmly rooted in 1950s American roots music for a while made rockabilly sound contemporary.

Jumpin East of Java (Surfdog, 2001): The Brian Setzer Orchestra's first live album featuring big-band arrangements of instrumental pieces ranging from the Duke Ellington Orchestra's Caravan to the theme from Hawaii Five-0, via Santo and Johnny's Sleepwalk. Vocal tracks include a couple from the Stray Cats repertoire plus the hit cover of Louis Prima's Jump Jive an' Wail.

Songs From Lonely Avenue (2009): the first Setzer album to feature only his own compositions has a film noir atmosphere and a loose plot line that was intended at the time for stage or screen adaptation. The jazzy side of Setzer's guitar playing is well to the fore, set against classic big-band arrangements.