Entertainment media is looking backwards these days, and America is eating it up. Television shows like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and films like The Great Gatsby are winning with fans while featuring lavish production numbers built around the music of the early 20th century. In response to requests from clients working on productions that need a big, authentic, retro sound, we’ve just recorded two releases (featuring more than 50 songs!) with Los Angeles’ Big Lucky Band.
We took a moment to talk with producer (and Megatrax’s Co-Founder and CCO), JC Dwyer, and Big Lucky’s bandleader, Paul Frederick, and songstress, Val Peterson, to talk about MX 286 Big Lucky Hot Jazz Orchestra 1: 1920s, and MX 287 Big Lucky Hot Jazz Orchestra 2: 1930s.
Megatrax: JC, is this Megatrax’s first big band release?
JC Dwyer: We have been making big band music since our 6th Megatrax CD in 1994 (MX006 Big Band And Jazz Styles Vol. 1), and we have many volumes of big band and jazz combined with vocal songs. And it’s important to note that although the titles on these two say “Big” and “Band,” they aren’t just big band music. They also feature small combo and Dixieland band music.
MX: Who chose the tracks featured on these new releases?
JC: Valerie, Paul and I had several creative meetings, and they suggested the best styles. Together we chose and researched all the public domain songs, and our musicologist, Cary Ginell, checked all the public domain material.
Paul Frederick: We were the engines, along with JC. He listened to our first 20’s album then suggested some PD songs and other tunes to help guide us in the right direction.
MX: Are there any tracks on these two albums that you’re especially excited about?
JC: I love the bluesy and Dixieland styles. They are really timeless.
Valerie Peterson: I love That Man’s Cologne, because it’s in both French and English, and I love singing in different languages. Ditto A Journey Down South, except it’s Spanish and English. The Habanera was fun, because I don’t know of any other 20’s version out there, and it’s in two languages also. I love the lyric on Love’s Still Free... I could go on & on.
Picking favorites is like trying to decide which of your children you love more. If I had to pick one song I couldn’t live without, I guess it would be Who Wouldn’t Love You. I just adore the mutes on the horns in the tutti section, and it’s quintessentially 20’s to me…
MX: Are there any notable contributors or techniques on these two albums?
PF: All of the instrumentation is how it was done in the 20’s- 30’s: live in one room with acoustic instruments, four-string banjo, guitar (a Gibson from 1930), clarinets, saxophones, trumpet/cornets (mutes/plungers), trombones, tuba, piano, upright bass, a 1920’s drums set, and violins (strings) and accordion. The Latin tunes also have a percussionist and “Big City Hustle Bustle” has metal car parts, cow bells, and wood blocks to give it trolley and city sounds.
MX: Paul and Val, was this your first foray into production music?
VP: I have been a work-for-hire singer on production music before, but this is the first that was my personal project. I’m amazed at the volume of music we did this year. It’s interesting working in the framework of a deadline—you can’t hem and haw about things. You have to make a decision and then make it work.
PF: I have composed production music for the Emmy-nominated Paramount TV movie “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” “The Tiger Woods Story” episodes of “VH1: Behind the Music,” and many indie films. I also composed and performed production music in the style of Gershwin for “Biography: The Ethel Merman Story.” Creating ideas, composing songs and then arranging them for a 20-piece orchestra quickly was unique. For most production music you have to use lots of samples. Every note is created by a person with an instrument in these recordings.
MX: On your site you say that the origins of Big Lucky are Paul walking into a Swing night with a clarinet and being spotted Val at the mic, “singing a tune that would have made the Great Gatsby proud.” You don’t say, however, what drew you both to this vintage sound. Can you tell us about that?
VP: Growing up listening constantly to the radio, I’ve always loved popular music. In college I did a large amount of musical theatre, and after I graduated I got a job in a cabaret in Montana that was Scott Joplin / vaudevillian themed. As I was getting more and more work singing jazz rather than rock, I came to the personal opinion that the songwriting of the jazz era was generally superior to anything I was hearing on modern commercial radio. So I just kept focusing on learning more & more music from 1960 going back by decades to the 20’s.
PF: I got sucked in growing up in New York hearing 20’s, 30’s, 40’s (Big Band era), & 50’s music with many stories from my grandfather who was a bandleader in NY from these eras and from playing this music at family events. My grandfather played in live radio, with Paul Whiteman, and for many of the bootleggers mentioned in “Boardwalk Empire.” (I can’t believe they’re using their actual names!) At the time I thought this music was for old people; in college I started to realize just how great composers/songwriters like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen (to name a few) really are.
PF: Big Lucky focuses on the great American songbook from the late teens to the earlier sixties and original tunes with a vintage flair and song structure. Our first recordings were from the swing and jump blues eras then we moved more into the past with our first 1920’s album. “The Venture Capital Follies of 1929.” Valerie and I started to write tunes and arrangements together since we started gigging together. Then JC gave us a great opportunity to compose about 25 more with a 20-piece Jazz orchestra.
MX: Is Megatrax planning to release anything else in this series?
JC: Yes, we will do a very contemporary DJ club electro swing remix of most of the material next year.
MX: Paul & Val, what’s coming up next for Big Lucky?
VP: BIG LUCKY is a working band, and we’re fortunate that The Great Gatsby has become a lasting trend. We have gigs booked into next year, and we’re making a push for a tour next summer.
PF: Yes, come hear us live at a speakeasy near you!