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

by delarue

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.