It’s the iconic image: the stylish tuxedo-clad crooner, microphone in hand, singing in the spotlight, backed by a 75-piece orchestra, belting out the Great American Songbook of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen.
It might surprise you to learn just who that guy is these days. Because these days, that singer is Seth MacFarlane, the animator/voice actor/producer/writer/actor/filmmaker behind the hit TV series “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” and the “Ted” films.
SETH MACFARLANE IN CONCERT With the Ravinia Festival Orchestra When: 8 p.m Aug. 21 Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park Tickets: $33-$55 Visit: ravinia.org
No stranger to the music, MacFarlane (also an accomplished pianist) says he’s been a fan for as long as he can remember. He released the 2011 CD “Music Is Better Than Words,” a big-band homage to hidden gems of the 1940s and ’50s, followed by a Christmas album, “Holiday For Swing!,” which boasted a 52-piece orchestra on holiday classics and rarely recorded seasonal tunes.
He’s currently working on his third album in the big band mode, and brings his swingin’ concert extravaganza to the Ravinia Festival pavilion on Aug. 21, where he’ll be accompanied by the Ravinia Festival Orchestra.
MacFarlane recently talked to me about his love for swinging, big band-style.
Q. Can you explain this love affair between you and this gorgeous, sweeping big band music you are performing?
A. It’s not even so much about the songs themselves. More than anything it’s about the orchestras. These arrangements, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, went from something great to something relatively simple to something very lush and elaborate. It’s a marriage of jazz and classical orchestrations, great arranging and songwriting. That’s what we’re trying to create, a specific era of music that requires a 60- to 80-piece orchestra to do a hit song. … The demise of the contract orchestra is the worst thing to ever happen to the music wing of Hollywood. You had 100 players who’d go into work every day and essentially had a symphony orchestra in place. Every player knew every other player’s rhythms. It was a tight sound.
Q. A lot of what you say goes back to the arranger, those great orchestrators who are no longer with us — Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, Johnny Mandel and such. How difficult is it to create this music today, to find orchestrators who can actually do it justice?
A. It’s impossible to find them today. You have to be surrounded by that kind of music all the time, to have it in your blood. Were there a Nelson Riddle or a Gordon Jenkins alive today in this musical climate, they’d find it tough to write in this milieu. I do think when people hear [big band orchestral music] it’s still incredibly moving and enriching. It’s like you don’t know what you’re missing till you hear it. We do the Nelson Riddle chart of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” in the show [see video below], one of the best charts of one of the best songs ever written [by Hoagy Charmichael] that stops the show. I was just in London with the John Wilson Orchestra and they re-created these long-gone orchestrations. Not only the arrangements but the dialogue of the music. When you hear it live it gives you chills.
Q. So are you using original charts from the legendary composers? Perhaps Frank Sinatra’s charts?
A. There’s an arranger in London named Andrew Cottee, who specializes in re-creating these classic arrangements. Whenever we can, we get the original charts. Some are Sinatra’s, because he had the greatest, the most perfect arrangements in the world. Some are from old MGM films. In my concerts it’s about really showing off what these symphony orchestras can do. The album we’re working on now, we went to the Nelson Riddle Archives and really studied what it is that makes this sound. When you look at his charts there’s a lot of blank spaces. It’s not what these arrangers wrote, it’s what they didn’t write. They reached a point in their careers where they could distill everything down to its most essential elements. It allowed the sound to be as crisp at it was full.
Q. What’s the new album going to feature?
A. It’s in the vein of the Sinatra ballad albums like “In the Wee Small Hours,” lots of strings and woodwinds. I’m working with a 65- to 70-piece orchestra. Sinatra’s charts are the best there ever were, so you’re not going to do those songs or charts better than he did. So we picked songs he never recorded. Songs like the Cole Porter tune from the 1930s, “Goodbye Little Dream, Goodbye.”
Q. What’s it like to hear that symphony behind you when you’re out on the stage, that wall of sound that envelops the entire venue?
A. It’s exhilarating, but oddly relaxing. You feel like you’re on this big, warm, fuzzy carpet. There’s a real comfort to it. It should be nerve-wracking but it’s not. The whole reason I do this stuff is to hear it live, with an orchestra. Evening when I’m singing, half of me is listening as an audience member to what the orchestra is doing.
Posted at 7:00 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2015