Album review

Eyal Vilner Big Band – ‘The Jam!’

Eyal Vilner Big Band – The Jam!

(Self-released (WEBSITE). Album review by Len Weinreich)

According to the late ebullient George Melly, it was George Bernard Shaw who described dancing as ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’. Fascinating to jazz aficionados because for at least half-a-century, jazz provided appropriate soundtracks to both expression and desire. The music enjoyed its greatest popularity when played for energetic dancing. And many fine musicians recalled that, in crowded ballrooms, the flow of creative inspiration was mutual. As bandleader Eyal Vilner observes: “both jazz dance – vernacular jazz dance and lindy hop – and jazz music come from the same place, being rooted in Black American art forms. They complement each other.”

Vilner, a saxophonist, flautist, composer and arranger, comments further: “There’s open conversation between swing music and swing dancing, as both of these art forms are rooted in improvisation…I get inspired by a syncopated move. It can be just as inspiring as hearing a great musician.” So much so, that in 2007, he moved from Tel Aviv to the Big Apple to immerse himself totally in the experience of playing jazz for dancers, assembling a big band and even enrolling for a course of swing dance lessons.

Populated with talented soloists, his organisation had an electrifying effect on New York’s ballrooms and even seems to have impressed the modish elite because he’s performed gigs at Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim Museum, as well Birdland and other established Manhattan jazz venues. “Whether the audience is sitting or dancing, we see the joy in their eyes and in their souls. There’s something very powerful about a large ensemble that really swings together.”

Then show time: collaborating with choreographer Calen Teicher and a team of talented hoofers, Vilner scored SW!NG OUT, a stage show that ran for two weeks at the Joyce Theatre in New York. “Ten musicians, twelve dancers making twenty-two great improvisors on stage. Pretty magical”, he says. “Groundbreaking”, commented The New York Times. For those of us who missed the live show, nine of the lively tracks are on this album.

Respectfully, we begin by paying hommage to the master of jazz orchestration: Ellington’s “Just A Lucky So-and-So” with spirited vocal by Imani Rousselle and atmospheric muted growls from Brandon Lee’s trumpet and Ron Wilkins’s trombone. Vilner demonstrates impressive bop chops on his own “Chabichou”, honouring his favourite fromage de chevre. On a further Vilner original, “Another Time”, Jon Thomas’s piano is plugged into ghost of Thelonious Monk. “The Jam!”, a rip-roaring blues describing composer Vilner’s introduction to New York. Purporting to deal with struggle and love, it swings nevertheless with rousing baritone work from Josh Lee. Unwilling to let a topical reference slip, “Will You Be My Quarantine?” is Vilner’s romantic take on the pandemic.

Tributes abound: for reed-master Frank Wess, his mentor, Vilner re-orchestrated “Monday Stroll” from a 1957 Wess recording date. And a lithe dancer from Balboa named Chad, inspired “Chad’s Delight”. Venerable favourites are reworked: Brianna Thomas warbles “Hard Hearted Hannah” (“she’s the kind of girl that likes to make men suffer”) with enthusiasm. And she delivers Sy Oliver’s timeless advice on poise and style, originally written for the scintillating Jimmy Lunceford band, “T’Ain’t What You Do”, in a bouncy quickstep treatment. Brandon Bain returns to sing “After the Lights Go Down Low”. Frankie Manning (a.k.a. ‘Ambassador of Lindy’) is acknowledged by the well-disciplined toes and heels of dancer Caleb Teacher on “Tap Tap Tap”. And, the intriguingly titled “Call Me Tomorrow, I Come Next Week” is Vilner’s rueful observation on the tardy responses of New York City repair services. Tenor saxophonist Michael Hashim provides heartfelt commentary, in all likelihood born out of experience.

Vilner’s flute features on “Belleville”, a moody memoir in the Ellington manner, reflecting time spent in the Parisian suburb, with help from Ron Wilkins and Brandon Lee. And to wrap, tribute is paid to Count Basie who co-wrote “Jumpin’ At the Woodside” with Eddie Durham.

Don’t be deceived: The Jam! Is a lot more than a nostalgic retro album revisiting the Swing Era. With fresh, affectionate approaches and meticulous musicianship, it’s an exuberant and up-to-date celebration of ecstatic swing dancing which, some eight decades after it crowded ballroom floors, could be poised to make a comeback.

Just a Lucky So and So; Chabichou; Another Time; The Jam; Will You Be My Quarantine?; Monday Stroll; Chad’s Delight; Hard Hearted Hannah; T’aint What You Do; Call Me Tomorrow, I Come Next Week; After The Lights Go Down Low; Tap Tap Tap; Belleville; Jumpin’ at the Woodside.

Categories: Album review

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