Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Eyal Vilner Big Band Bring Their Blazing Tunefulness to Midsummer Night Swing

The Eyal Vilner Big Band distinguish themselves from the legions of brassy large jazz ensembles with tthe bandleader/alto saxophonist’s sense of humor and knack for clever orchestrations as well as the occasional bristling Middle Eastern theme. As their latest album Swing Out – which isn’t officially out yet, and hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots – reminds, they can do the retro stuff with anyone, and there are standards on this collection. But they blaze most brightly on the originals and the obscurities. They’re playing this year’s Midsummer Night Swing festival out back of Lincoln Center on July 10; it’s free to get into Damrosch Park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

The new album opens with Downhill, a darkly swinging hi-de-ho anthem that looks back to Cab Calloway; the title refers to the descending progression that Vilner assembles the song around. The bandleader plays steady, incisive blues for his solo followed by Rob Edwards’ fluttetering trombone and a hard-hitting crescendo out.

Singer Brianna Thomas delivers a refreshingly driving version of In a Mellow Tone with mistiness and then exuberance; Vilner’s chart mixes equal parts plushness and punch. She sings a briskly shuffling, irresistibly funny tale of the hokum blues tune Dinah completely deadpan, tenor sax and then the whole orchestra cutting loose with a droll dixieland flair. Then Vilner’s clarinet swirls wistfully and the brass get their mutes out for a tightly crescendoing stroll through Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

St. Louis Blues shifts between noir mambo and blithe, clapalong dixieland: the mambo is so tempting that it hurts to hear it return and then disappear. The band follow the same formula with That’s All, part shimmer, part cha-cha, crooned by guest Brandon Bain. With its tightly incisive horn phrasing, Big Apple Contest has an electic early 30s Ellington energy and bright, momentary solos from clarinet and trumpets.

With its coy, spare exchange of horn voicings, Nina Simone’s bouncy original is the prototype for Vilner’s arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me; the shout-out to Michelle Obama is a neat touch. Matter-of-factly perambulating muted trumpet and Krupa-like flourishes from the drums fuel Going Uptown; then Thomas returns for a beefed-up yet restrained take of the jump blues 5-10-15 Hours.

The group give Bir Mei Bist Du Schoen a gorgeously ambered intro that goes straight back to the song’s klezmer roots, echoed in the low brass as the song shuffles moodily along. The album’s epic closing cut is the old spiritual I’m on My Way to Canaan Land, shifting artfully from misterioso Sun Ra drone. to spare gospel shuffle, bracing latin swing, samba jazz, allusions to Moroccan gnawa and peak-era orchestral Ellington. On one hand – like the Champian Fulton record featured on this page recently – this is as trad as trad gets. Yet Vilner’s charts are so bright and imaginative that these old songs sound brand new again.

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July 4, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Champian Fulton Fuels the Fun with an All-Star Cast This July 3 at Lincoln Center

Beyond sheer entertainment, the point of the Sisterhood of Swing Seven show at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series this July 3 is to create a septet supergroup of some of the foremost women instrumentalists in jazz. That they chose Champian Fulton as the pianist is hardly a surprise. But they could just as easily have chosen her to be the singer. The rest of the group also has fearsome chops: Catherine Russell on vocals; Camille Thurman (another rarity, a first-rate singer and instrumentalist) on tenor sax; Emily Asher on trombone; Endea Owens on bass; Shirazette Tinnin on drums, and Molly Ryan on guitar. Showtime is 7:30 PM (you can show up for a dance lesson earlier if you want), it’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

Fulton considers her latest album, the lavish two-disc set The Stylings of Champian Fulton (streaming at Spotify) to be the high point of her recording career so far. With her longtime rhythm section, Hide Tanaka on bass and Fukushi Tainaka  (no relation) on drums, she brings her signature, subtle, stinging wit and sense of surprise to enliven a collection of familiar standards. Vocally, Dinah Washington (an artist she paid tribute to with her After Dark album) is the obvious influence), but Fulton’s range reaches both the calmer and sharper edges of where Washington would typically go.

There’s mist in Fulton’s voice on the opening track, Day by Day – but it’s the mist off a kettle on the stove. As with many of the songs, Fulton’s dad Stephen Fulton adds an amiable flugelhorn solo; his daughter’s rugged chordal intensity afterward is a typically counterintuitive move for her.

She takes the first verse of Lollipops and Roses solo, dead-serious, then the bass and drums kick in and the trio romp through to the end. The full quartet reinvent I Only Have Eyes For You as a deviously chuffing march and then swing it hard. The instrumental Blues Etude has an even more careening intensity; after that, they rein it in just a bit with I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, lit up by Fulton’s bluesy charm on the keys and contrastingly incisive vocals.

The elder Fulton’s ebullientce filters through the album’s second instrumental, Rodeo; the younger one plays with as much devious bluesiness as anywhere else on the record. She takes a similar purist approach to Darn that Dream, but at half the speed, with a more coyly exploratory touch.

Borrowing a more upbeat love song from the past, Too Marvelous For Words perfectly crystallizes what she’s all about: matter-of-fact, unselfconsciously adrenalizing crescendos matched to vocal nuance. The first cd winds up with a brief, balmy bass-and-vocal take of Body and Soul, .

The second record kicks off with a Isn’t It a Lovely Day, the bandleader catching the subtle irony in the lyrics but then contrasting with a cheerily crescendoing piano solo. The band scrambles frantically behind her casually brassy vocal in a lickety-split version You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – it’s doubtful if anybody’s ever done it so fast, or with a Chopin riff tossed into the piano solo. In context, the feral, jungly drum solo is the icing on the cake.

The instrumental Martha’s Prize has a brisk, incisive, latin-tinged swing. She does the country-flavored Lonesome and Sorry as a jazz waltz, while All the Things You Are swings through a leapfrogging drum break to a fiery latin vamp out. On one hand, all this is as retro as it gets. On the other, Fulton’s knowing vocals and improvisational flair are as cutting-edge as anything happening in the avant garde. To paraphrase JD Allen,, sometimes the most radical thing you can do these days is swing.

June 29, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Get the Party Started at This Year’s Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing Festival

Smoky grey clouds trailed across the river from New Jersey amid spots of sun, a blanket of crushing humidity over Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center last night. Hardly optimum conditions for the opening of this year’s Midsummer Night Swing festival – but people came anyway. Who goes to these things? Millennials. And old people – Gen X and most of Gen Y seemed to be missing. Which in a way is strange, because it was Gen X who suppported the first wave of the oldtimey swing revival in New York back in the 90s.

Appropriately, New York’s kings of retro swing, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, were chosen to play opening night. The multi-instrumentalist bandleader recalled how his orchestra had played the festival thirty years ago, at a time when their main haunt was a lively (and long since vanished) cajun boite in Chelsea. In the years since, Giordano has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for all swing-related things: the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack is just one of many recent achievements.

The band didn’t seem the least phased by the heat. For Giordano,“We’re going to slow things down now” means midtempo; this was a dance party after all. On the other hand, the group’s vividness and attention to detail is astronishing, especially when you consider that a lot of the material in their first set was standards they’ve played over and over again. Maybe the change of venue, from the cozier confines of the Iguana, where they’ve held down a Monday-Tuesday residency for several years now, was a factor.

And Giordano is as much if not more committed to lost treasures as he is to standards. The set was a mix of both. With its tricky syncopation and klezmer echoes, Puttin’ On the Ritz was a big hit with the crowd. Moving from Detroit, to Kansas City, to Harlem and the south, the group painted a vast and eclectic panorama of the music that rose from the shadiest parts of town to become America’s default party soundtrack for decades.

They opened with Fletcher Henderson’s boisterous 1920s hit Stampede – which actually didn’t hit quite that velocity – and closed with the caffeinated dixieland of Rhythm Is Our Business, from about five years later. In between, they went into the Ellington catalog for a brisk early 30s obscurity as well as The Mooche, which Giordano called “highly seductive.” With its luscious, hazily lustrous chromatics, it was the high point of the set.

Throughout the orchestra, solos were incisive and tantalizingly brief – which they have to be if a band is limited to a single side of a 78 RPM record. Trumpeter Jon Kellso kicked off a relatively austere yet triumphant take of King Oliver’s West End Blues with a restraint that foreshadowed the song’s unexpected suspenseful quality: this was a night full of unexpected dynamics. On the more buoyant tip, Maurice Chavalier’s Isn’t It Romantic gave the group a chance to go full-steam symphonic. A simmering version of Moonlight Serenade later on also reached toward those mighty proportions.

Giordano’s residency at the Iguana continues next week; Midsummer Night Swing returns on June 29 at 7:30 PM with the fiery horn and electric tres textures of salsa group Los Hacheros. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

June 26, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lincoln Center’s 2018 Midsummer Night Swing Series Opens With Potent Relevance and Breathtaking Musicianship

At the risk of getting into serious trouble saying this, there hasn’t been such a stunning display of jazz talent on any New York stage this year as there was last night at the kickoff of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival. The inspiration for the mighty big band, the Sisterhood of Swing, was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group, who debuted eighty-one years ago. As bandleader, trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg took care to remind the audience who packed Damrosch Park, those women risked their lives playing music together.

The members of this group weren’t risking their lives, but arguably the majority of them were out of their element. And few among this allstar cast play regularly with large ensembles, fewer still with a group the size of this one. The majority are bandleaders who play their own material rather than bouncy 1930s swing. Yet everybody seemed to be pretty much jumping out of their shoes to be involved in this project.

In two lengthy, hard-swinging sets that spanned from standards to cult favorites and an obscure gem or two, the fourteen-piece ensemble offered tantalizing glimpses of pretty much each member’s personality, yet in a completely different context considering where they’re usually found.

The audience responded most explosively to tenor saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman’s serpentine climb to the vocal stratosphere in one of the night’s few ballads, quite a contrast with her rapidfire scatting in a Benny Goodman diptych during the first set. Another big hit was tapdancer Michela Lerman’s nimble solo over Savannah Harris’ irrepressibly boisterous, tropically-tinged tom-tom syncopation, mirroring the drummer’s rambunctious drive in the second set’s opening number, Lady Be Good.

At the piano, Champian Fulton delivered purist, masterfully spacious, blues-drenched lines that fit the material perfectly, especially when the band threw her what could have been the night’s longest solo. In her first turn on the mic, she projected with a surprisingly steely intensity, then a second time around worked knowingly triumphant, bluesy, Dinah Washington-inspired melismas.

Lead trumpeter Jami Dauber joined with her brassy bandmate Linda Briceño and Skonberg as well in a wildly crescendoing, tightly spinning exchange in the wryly titled Battle of the Bugles, one of a handful of numbers from the catalog of Sweethearts of Swing creators Kat Sherrell and Natalie Wilson. Bassist Endea Owens benefited from excellent amplification, giving her a forceful presence. Chloe Feoranzo stood out most noticeably with her gritty baritone sax work; trombonist and singer Emily Asher also got time in the spotlight to channel some goodnaturedly wry humor. Lead alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin played punchy soul alongside her fellow reedwomen Thurman and Sharel Cassity.

On clarinet, Anat Cohen spun silky arpeggios on the less breathlessly pulsing numbers and delivered joyously dancing dixieland when the pace picked up, notably alongside violinist Regina Carter in A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove, a deliriously frantic obscurity by 1930s vioinist Ginger Smock. The two worked more calmly and majestically in a new instrumental arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me. The group closed with a joyously edgy take of the klezmer-tinged romp Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown, made famous by Mildred Bailey with the Tommy Dorsey band. The crowd didn’t want to let the band go after discovering this new sensation.

This year’s Midsummer Night Swing series continues through July 14 with a more eclectic series of dance bands than ever. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM it’s salsa pioneer and “El Rey de la Pachanga” Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. It’ll cost you $17 to get out on the dance floor, something an awful lot of people last night were doing.

June 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment