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.