Pops Maestro Jazzed About Seth MacFarlane Show

It seems today that all you see are sex-crazed talking teddy bears in movies and lewd cartoons on TV. But where are those good, old-fashioned crooners on which we used to rely? Luckily, there’s Seth MacFarlane.

Jul 22, 2015 at 9:44 am
click to enlarge John Morris Russell conducts the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.
John Morris Russell conducts the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

It seems today that all you see are sex-crazed talking teddy bears in movies and lewd cartoons on TV. But where are those good, old-fashioned crooners on which we used to rely? Luckily, there’s Seth MacFarlane.

The creative mind responsible for the Ted movies, A Million Ways to Die in the West, American Dad and Family Guy (among myriad other contributions to film and television) is now on a limited tour of the country, showcasing his vocal talent as the frontman of a swingin’ Big Band; in Cincinnati, he’ll be backed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted by John Morris Russell.

MacFarlane is seemingly too busy being a jet-setting international celebrity to speak with our humble altweekly. Luckily, Maestro Russell was more than happy to take time from his raucous schedule to discuss why Cincinnati Pops is the perfect orchestra for Rat Pack-inspired music.

“I guest-conduct all over the continent, and there are very few orchestras that can really swing,” Russell says. “You can ask any orchestra to swing, but you ask the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra to swing and they’ll say, ‘What kind of swing?’ They play with such a great seriousness and purpose.”

To the uninitiated, Swing music may seem a strange decision for a symphonic orchestra to tackle, but the Cincinnati Pops includes a rhythm section to capture the authentic sound needed for the genre.

“The rhythm section allows us to play a lot of the great American repertoire — the rhythm section being a drum set, bass, guitar and piano,” Russell says. “The nucleus of our Pop sound comes from that rhythm section that helps us swing, helps us rock and it’s the driving force. It allows us to play the panoply of the American musical experience, bathed in orchestral colors.”

The conversation steers toward the great Gunther Schuller, a local composer who bridged the gap between Jazz and Classical music — a natural extension of the Cincinnati Pops’ modus operandi. Schuller died last month at 89 years old.

“Gunther got his orchestral start in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra,” Russell says. “He played the French horn. We still have a whole lot of his arrangements that he created in our Pops library.

“What an extraordinary career. Here’s the guy who had a foot in both worlds, and that he was associated with our orchestra — it’s our raison d’être. He was one of the first people to cross that line and say, ‘Look, the symphony orchestra is great for Tchaikovsky, but it works for the modern Jazz quartet, and Scott Joplin and Miles Davis as well.’ ”

Russell describes Cincinnati as a musical crossroads, thanks to our river, which has attracted the full range of American music — Gospel, Blues and Jazz via New Orleans and Bluegrass and Folk courtesy of Appalachia. Because the musicians comprising Cincinnati Pops have been steeped in this culturally diverse musical cornucopia, it’s natural they should play these styles with an informed nuance unattainable anywhere else in the world.

The fact that MacFarlane’s television and film work is overflowing with homages to Big Band, show tunes and Swing is proof enough of his dedication to the lifestyle.

“Seth is a real Big Band aficionado,” Russell says. “He’s crazy about the music of Sinatra, the Rat Pack and big, old-time Swing. So a lot of his playlists are classic, right out of the American songbook: ‘I get Along Without You Very Well,’ ‘Let’s Do It,’ ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ ‘It’s Alright With Me’ and ‘Guys and Dolls.’ It’s all the great, straight-ahead, big orchestral Big Band…Very reminiscent of the Nelson Riddle sound, the Big Band along with an orchestra.”

Along with MacFarlane’s musical abilities, Russell says he’s a fan of MacFarlane’s contributions to film and television.

“We just watched Ted last night. Good, stupid humor — my kind of humor,” he says. “I watch Family Guy every once in a while, but my schedule precludes me to be a regular TV watcher … but whenever I do catch an episode, I’m always very much entertained.”

Russell believes this upcoming Pops performance is for audiences of all ages, as the music speaks to older generations while MacFarlane’s comedic accomplishments entice youngsters.

“If folks haven’t seen the Pops,” he says, “this is a fantastic reason to come for the first time.”

SETH MACFARLANE performs with the CINCINNATI POPS Friday at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion. More info: cincinnatisymphony.org.