Eyal Vilner Big Band
Swing Out! Album Reviews
by Jim Hynes
This could be a first. Eyal Vilner’s Big Band recorded this album live in the studio with dancers swing dancing while the band played. Through their three previous albums, the band has developed strong connections with the NYC swing dance community, to the extent it influences the way Vilner writes and arranges tunes. Vilner elaborates, “…This exchange between dance and music, movement and sound, feels so new and refreshing—yet so natural and familiar. It feels like we’re bringing it back to where jazz and swing dancing grew up and developed together. Influenced and inspired by one another.”
The band is an 18-piece ensemble comprised of some of NYC’s finest veterans and youthful players. Their mission is ostensibly bring big band music into the 21st century, drawing on traditional jazz, forms of bop, swing, blues, and whatever else is danceable. Vilner, in addition to composing, arranging and conducting, plays alto sax, clarinet and flute. Soulful vocalist Brianna Thomas fronts the band with Brandon Bain also handling some vocals.
Vilner’s opening “Downhill” is already a favorite on the New York Lindy Hop scene. It draws from the hard bop of Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers and features solos from Vilner on alto, Brandon Lee on trumpet, and Rob Edwards on plunger muted trombone. That sets the stage for Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone,” a vehicle for a Thomas’ splendid vocal turn. She appears also on the following “Dinah,” a New Orleans-flavored tune at a blazing tempo that features a washboard along with Vilner soloing on both alto sax and clarinet. The New Orleans groove, simmered to more of a blues, continues with “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)” with solos from pianist Jordan Piper, bass trombonist Ron Wilkins, Evan Arntzen on clarinet, and James Zollar on a muted trumpet.
The bluesy mood continues in W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” rendered in a Dixieland style with Thomas again delivering the classic lyrics emotively. Michael Hashim swings in his tenor sax solo and Piper provides the vintage piano. Toward the end the band plays a Louis Armstrong solo orchestrated for 12 horns, following the vocal choruses. Vocalist Brandon Bain steps in for the ballad “That’s All,” which also features lyrical alto sax from Vilner.
The second half of the program is highlighted with popular dance tunes: “Big Apple Contest” with four soloists, Vilner’s own “Going Uptown” and his clarinet-leading classic swing “Bie Mir Bist Du Schoen,” his tribute to the Andrews Sisters. In between we get an inventive arrangement of the Nina Simone-associated “My Baby Cares for Me” with the band in ensemble mode behind Thomas’s vocal. They also arrange the classic R&B tune “5-10-15 Hours” to feature Thomas in call and response mode with the band. A bit surprisingly, but emblematic of the band’s versatility, they close with a great arrangement of Mahalia Jackson’s “I’m on My Way to Canaan Land,” where Thomas can flaunt her gospel roots and guest flutist Itai Kriss takes a terrific solo. The rhythms here alternate between Afro-Cuban and Middle Eastern (where Vilner has his roots).
This is pure fun—inventive, energetic, and well beyond toe tapping. You won’t sit still so just go ahead and let yourself go.