Eyal Vilner Big Band Releases New Album; Celebrates At Lincoln Center And Birdland

Tonight, the album launches as part of Lincoln Center's Summer For The City program, and on June 23 at Birdland Jazz Club.

By: Jun. 14, 2024
Eyal Vilner Big Band Releases New Album; Celebrates At Lincoln Center And Birdland
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The Eyal Vilner Big Band is back with a new album! Released today, Swingin' Uptown is the latest release from the New York-based ensemble, which has been lighting up the city since 2008. A big band celebration of motion and sound from Harlem and beyond, Swingin' Uptown reaches into the roots and ideas of the past and uses them to grow something new and vibrant in the present. Tonight, the album launches as part of Lincoln Center's Summer For The City program, and on June 23, the project will be celebrated at Birdland Jazz Club at 5:30. Read guest contributor Andrew Poretz's review of the Eyal Vilner Big Band at Birdland in 2022!

Eyal Vilner's playing, bandleading, and writing have always been informed by the eras of jazz in which the big band was not only prominent but popular. As a writer, Vilner has spent intimate time with the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstein, Fletcher Henderson, and the various writers of Count Basie Orchestra, informing his infectious groove and luscious use of tone and color within his orchestrations. As a performer, Vilner embodies the artistry of that same time, his horn singing with the lineage of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Charlie Parker. Equipped with such soundscapes and mastery from the "golden age" of jazz, it is no surprise, then, that Vilner sought to immerse himself further into this tradition. He has the writing, he has the playing, and he has the bandleading; all that was left to complete this vivacious quartet was the dancing. "I see the Lindy Hop and Vernacular Jazz Dance as an important part of the roots of jazz. When I started exploring and learning these dances, it felt like it completed the picture for me and gave me a deeper understanding of the music, its tradition and history, and of the community from which it came," Vilner says. "Jazz music and jazz dance are inseparable; they grew together, influenced and inspired each other. Appreciating and immersing myself in this part of Black American culture has given me a deeper understanding of the music I fell in love with as a teenager."

As Vilner grew in proficiency and joy with these dances, doors began opening for him as a musician. Vilner began working with many of the top dancers, choreographers, and directors in New York City, collaborating on the creation and execution of various shows, competitions, and festivals. Most notable among these are Vilner's involvement in the International Lindy Hop Championships in Harlem, and SW!NG OUT, a theater production described as "groundbreaking" by The New York Times for which Vilner is the co-creator and musical director. Before their studio date, the band had twenty-two performances together within a single month, and this proximity engendered an unparalleled cohesiveness within the music that is so neatly captured on the record. "To work together so much is such a rare privilege for any band these days, particularly a big band," Vilner says. "This extended time, hanging together on and off the bandstand, made the band so tight and united, both musically and on a human level. It truly feels like a family."

The album's title, Swingin' Uptown, is a direct tribute to Uptown Harlem, where these dances were conceived and popularized. "Harlem is where it all started!" Vilner proclaims. "We're here paying tribute to the birthplace by striving to create something new, original, and honest within the aesthetics of swinging jazz music." In achieving Vilner's goal, the album features ten arrangements of pieces that have either lent themselves to dance during the 20th century, or have the remarkable groove and feel that can easily render them apt for dancing. In addition, Swingin' Uptown presents six original compositions that are steeped in the stylings and tradition of the masters of groove and swing. By revitalizing the repertoire beloved by musicians and dancers of the past while contributing new repertoire to the oeuvre, Vilner demonstrates that not only is this creative overlap historically important, it is contemporarily thriving.

The title track of the album, "Swingin' Uptown", is one of Vilner's original works and was commissioned to be performed at the International Lindy Hop Championships, held at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem. The piece was written with dancers of the highest caliber in mind, featuring fiery choruses and ever-increasing energy as the band runs through a string of exciting modulations to spur the competitors onward. Structurally, the piece features short, vignette-like solos from a smattering of band members, creating a mosaic effect that comes together in a shout section to bring the piece to an exhilarating head. "I Want Coffee" is another original by the bandleader. The piece leans into the age-old musical tradition of call-and-response to musically paint the emotion evoked by the title. Featuring grumpy-sounding brass in conversation with the mellow reeds, the piece leads into a cry that is rung out by the trombone, before opening up to opportunities for call-and-response to occur in dance as well. The conceptual motif of this track continues with "Coffee Bean Stomp Jubilee". The second ode to that wonderful caffeinated beverage, this track leans into the heritage of New Orleans and its imminently danceable grooves. A veritable celebration, Vilner describes the piece as "a multi-section form that begins with a groovy piano solo, followed by short feature solos for the horn players, before ending with a reprise of the melody with a new swing groove." The track "Bumpy Tour Bus" was inspired by exactly what the title says - Vilner's time on the road with his band for the show SW!NG OUT. Vilner's composition "Lobby Call Blues" ties into the running theme that many of his originals share of leaning into lived experiences on the road. Vilner humorously laments the inspiration of the song: "On the road, the most dreadful blues is the lobby call blues. The scene of the song is pretty comical; an early morning call time after a long late-night hang post-show, where you sleep for maybe an hour, then have a few minutes to pack up and run down to catch the tour bus to the next city." The final original on the album, and the album's conclusion, entitled "Afternoon at Smalls" is a loving ode to the iconic New York venue after which it is named. The piece contains programmatic elements and scores a scene of the club that the bandleader has in his mind's eye. Vilner elaborates: "It starts with a descending figure, like walking down the basement club's stairs. The scene then reveals an intimate quintet with a flute and muted trumpet playing the melody. The arrangement develops to a rich sax solo, and a shout chorus by the full band, before launching into a selection of improvised solos."

The band on this record - with all its distinctive personalities and carefully chosen musicians - was itself integral to the realization of this music. Comprising some of the top rising stars and young artists rapidly ascending in the New York jazz scene, the ensemble has, much due to the aforementioned extensive time on the road together, crafted their own, single identity on the bandstand, rather than merely being a collection of individuals. The Eyal Vilner Big Band consists of Eyal Vilner (a. sax, fl., cl., conducting, arranging), Julieta Eugenio (t. sax), Josh Lee (b. sax), John Lake (lead tp.), Brandon Lee (tp.), Ron Wilkins (tbn.), John Thomas (pn.), Ian Hutchinson (b.), Eran Fink (dr.), and featured vocalist, Imani Rousselle (tracks 4, 6, 11, 13).

Swingin' Uptown is set to stand as a landmark album in the annals of jazz and dance history. An interdisciplinarily inspired work of the highest caliber, Vilner's seventh album poignantly illustrates the vitality and spark that comes when art is rooted in history and the beauty of it blooms in cross-pollination.


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