August 12, 2019. Eyal Vilner grew up in Tel Aviv, loving the music of the swing era. But he didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to swing until he started swing dancing himself. Now, fully indoctrinated, his 16-piece big band is a driving force behind New York City’s surprisingly robust Lindy hop scene. Their latest, Swing Out!, provides a dozen very clear reasons why.
The opener, “Downhill,” is a Vilner original that’s become a tune most demanded along this charmingly anachronistic dance circuit—and with good reason.
It reeks—in the best possible way something can reek—of Cab Calloway’s influence; the Hidey Ho Man’s spectral fingerprints are all over this one, begging the question of whether specters have fingerprints, among other questions.
Chief among those other questions: “Who are those amazing soloists?” It’s Vilner on alto sax, Brandon Lee on trumpet, and Rob Edwards on trombone, all of whom, sticking faithfully to the theme, are playing possessed.
An arrangement of The Duke’s “In a Mellow Tone” is next, with Ian Hutchinson’s gentlemanly bass line accompanying guest vocalist Brianna Thomas out front to deliver her smoky interpretation of the standard. Thomas stays on for another swing-era standard, “Dinah,” where we hear a Johnny Hodges-like solo on alto sax by Vilner, followed by air-tight multi-part harmonies by, first, a phalanx of saxophones, then a stand of clarinets.
Ahh—that incomparable sound of woodwinds playing together that can only be found in big band jazz. There’s really nothing quite like it.
Other highlights include a Dixie-fied St. Louis Blues that sees Ms. Thomas channel Bessie Smith and garnish that essence-of-Bessie with her own brand of contemporary sass, and a take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” again featuring Ms. Thomas, that offers a playful updating of the well-known lyric. Hint: Beyonce is not “his” style; neither is Rihanna, nor even Michelle Obama for that matter. Now that’s commitment!
“Going Uptown,” another of Vilner’s originals, is a straight-forward swinger, driven by rock-steady drummer Eran Fink (who’s also fantastic on “St. Louis Blues”) and colored by a stylish arrangement of riffs for a muted horn section that gives way to rousing trumpet solos by both Brandon Lee and Michael Sailors.
The one that is not like the others, however—the traditional gospel number “Canaan Land”—may be the most memorable. Originally made famous by gospel great Mahalia Jackson, Vilner’s version blends traditional southern gospel and New Orleans second-line with his own proprietary blend of middle eastern spices, including a soaring flute solo by guest Itai Kriss that bridges the distance between the Negev and the Bayou.
Topped off with swingin’ big band horn arrangements, Vilner leaves us with a delightfully spicy gumbo of a tune, served most unconventionally, but deliciously, with the musical equivalent of sides of pita and Israeli tabbouleh.
Have a taste—it might just have you saying toedah rahbah (Hebrew for Thank You) for the lagniappe.