Thornton Jazz Orchestra infuses concert with video game themes

On Monday, the Thornton Concert Jazz Orchestra performed modern takes on classic musical themes from the “Super Mario Bros.” video game franchise. (Andres Casanova/Daily Trojan)

The Thornton School of Music Concert Jazz Orchestra went retro at its Jazz Night on Monday. Its pieces transported the audience to grassy plains, underground caverns, ghostly manors and roads of rainbows, with one mustachioed plumber tying them all together.

Led by director Jason Goldman, an assistant professor of jazz studies at Thornton, the group sought to bring audiences into its concerts through a unique choice of theme.

“Me, being the geek that I am, thought, ‘Man, it’d be cool to do a concert of video games!’” Goldman said. “This year, I thought we would have a focus on games with Mario in them since there are so many games to choose from. Plus, everyone knows Mario.”

The concert began with the bombastic opening theme from “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” complete with rapid drum riffs and fanfare blasts working in tandem to capture the spirit of the breakneck brawler game.

The ensemble continued with covers of tracks from other “Mario” titles. The tropical “Delfino Plaza” from “Super Mario Sunshine” was led by a soft piano carrying the main melody, while the cheery yet eerie “Ghost House” theme from “Super Mario World” filled the theater with low reverberations, the once gentle piano now playing a spine-tingling tune.

Freshman Peter No, who is majoring in film and television production,  was keen to the CJO’s cover of “Rainbow Road” from “Super Mario Kart.” The arrangement, which fittingly opened with a stoplight countdown and the whirs of go-kart engines, utilized a prominent flute and an overwhelming crescendo from the wind section to rework the tension of the precarious racer into a calmer groove.

“I could feel my heart pound as I listened to the familiar yet unfamiliar melodies in my head,” No said. “I really loved how the orchestra brought elements of the original game into their performance. From the beginning countdown to the satisfying completion of the finish line, I felt like the game had come to life.”

Drummer Suraj Partha, a senior majoring in jazz studies, noted how nostalgia was a key factor in bringing the “Mario” songs to the stage.

“I was really excited when I heard we were going to play songs from the ‘Mario’ series,” Partha said. “It’s amazing how lasting and relevant that music is, just how many themes we could recognize and play in a modern jazz context. The music is timeless, really.”

The grand finale comprised the famous “Underground Theme,” combining songs from “Super Mario Bros.” and “Super Mario Bros. 2” to create an ominous tune filled with moving saxophones and intertwining harmonies.

“It gave me so much nostalgia,” said Blair Evans, a freshman majoring in international relations and East Asian languages and cultures. “I was listening to this song all over again, but with its own sort of individuality that made it seem like new.”

To Goldman, one of the perks of working with “Mario” songs and other popular video game themes comes from reimagination.

“We don’t want to play it exactly as it appears in the game a lot of the time, plus the orchestration in a game is often much different from a jazz band,” he said. “One of the goals of arrangers is to take a song’s main theme and develop their own ideas and concepts around that theme. It’s really part of the fun.”

Partha similarly noted that freedom with established themes made the arrangements stand out.

“The student arrangers are very talented in that they can take the essence of the song and mess around with it,” Partha said. “They can play with different styles — say, play some sections in mambo or rock-funk — and that’s why it’s a testament to how good the original game songs are. They can still work in all these different settings; different composers and arrangers can still take those themes and put a new take on them.”