A big ‘ooooh” went through the crowd when arranger/conductor David Berger announced Juan Tizol’s Casablanca, the noir cha-cha classic that turned out to be the high point of a dynamic opening set by his blazing Sultans of Swing Big Band at Drom last night. Berger is a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: this gig, staged by the New York Hot Jazz Festival folks, gave him a chance to air out this stormy, allusively chromatic showstopper along with his other purist but inventive arrangements of swing tunes both popular and obscure.
Emcee Will Friedwald explained that everybody was there to celebrate the birthday of the “godfather of lindy hop,” Frankie Manning, the dance leader widely credited with springboarding the 90s swing revival here in Manhattan and around the world as well. Swing jazz was and will always be for dancers, but this was a concert for the listener too. There were at least as many people chlilling on the sidelines as there were on the floor, maybe more.
All evening, solos percolated throughout the band, individual members pairing off song by song until pretty much everybody got a few bars apiece. They kicked things off with a Mack the Knife-ish original that started out balmy, got brassy and then featured some neat syncopation between brass and reeds. A midtempo swing version of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theme song, was next. “Maybe not,” Berger admitted. “Maybe later,” one of the sax section clarified.
Jelly Roll Morton’s Someday, Sweetheart had a jaunty Dan Block clarinet solo that gave way to suave trombone, and then Mark Hynes’ bubbling tenor sax. One of the clarinetists sang an opiated take of Louis Jordan’s Knock Me a Kiss, lit up with another bustling Hynes tenor solo.
Berger explained away his stab at making swing jazz out the old early 1900s standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon as sarcastic: if a little tongue-in-cheek, it turned out to be fetching despite itself, with some pretty hip harmonies in the high reeds and brass, exchanges of bars throughout the band and a genial trombone solo. A little later they made a gorgeously lowlit, lush wee-hours swing ballad out of the old Scottish folk song Mighty Like a Rose, with a deliciously moody low brass arrangement: it turned into a dynamic feature for baritone sax.
Zoot Sims’ The Red Door got a lush snowstorm of drums, a brightly purposeful tenor sax solo and a bit of a bubbly one from bassist Jennifer Vincent – it was good to hear her amply amped in the mix, something that you can’t necessarily expect from the four string at a big band gig.
A breathtaking, uneasily carnivalesque take of Al Cohn’s Take Four was packed with brief, out-of-breath conversational phrases. A Neal Hefti number – “the swinginest chart ever,” Berger enthused – turned into a hopped-up vehicle for more baritone sax as well as the drums’ rolling, tumbling attack.
Then guest singer Hetty Kate, fresh off the plane from Australia, joined the band and launched into a coy, slinky take of Them There Eyes. She’s the real deal: she sings in character, every number different from the last one (you’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that), can bend a blue note any which way and make you smile or smirk or furrow your brow along with her.
You’re Too Marvelous for Words, with its simmering sophistication and surprisingly stark, bluesy trombone solo, contrasted with the bitingly brassy, sarcastic kissoff anthem A Fine Romance. And then channeled brittle hope and expectation in Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss to Build a Dream On. The band closed with an irrepressible dixieland flair.
The New York Hot Jazz Festival’s next big production is at Central Park Summerstage on July 1 starting at 5 PM with chanteuse Aurora Nealand, charming, female-fronted cosmopolitan swing crew Avalon Jazz Band and NYC’s arguably finest oldtime swing band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks,