Swingin’ Uptown
Release date: June 14, 2024
Self-Release

Eyal Vilner is thrilled to announce his latest recording with the Eyal Vilner Big Band, Swingin’ Uptown, due out June 14. Having led the Eyal Vilner Big Band since 2008, the alto saxophonist, clarinetist, and flutist has performed worldwide across venues including the Lincoln Center, Birdland, the Guggenheim, Dizzy’s Club, Smalls, LA Music Center, the Red Sea Jazz Festival, Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, and historic Parisian venues such as La Bellevilloise, Caveau de la Huchette, and Le Duc des Lombards, among others. After digging deeply into the luminaries of Harlem in his arranging and the icons of big band saxophone in his playing, Vilner took his music a step further in its historic roots and began participating in and studying the powerful intertwining of music and dance throughout jazz history, exemplified by his many critically acclaimed recordings. The newest is the sparkling Swingin’ Uptown, a big band celebration of motion and sound from Harlem and beyond that reaches into the roots and ideas of the past and uses them to grow something new and vibrant in the present.

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. 

Swingin’ Uptown releases independently on June 14th, 2024

##

The Jam!
Release date: July 1, 2022
Self-Release

As founder and leader of one of New York’s finest large ensembles, multi-instrumentalist Eyal Vilner takes direct inspiration from New York’s swing dance renaissance on The Jam!presenting a selection of vibrantly swinging originals that further cement his status as an innovative voice on the modern day big band scene. 

Born in Tel Aviv, Vilner moved to New York in 2007, and began his big band the following year. The ensemble has performed at New York landmarks like Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Guggenheim Museum, Birdland, Dizzy’s Club, Smalls Jazz Club and Minton’s Playhouse. The band has also been a big hit in New York’s thriving dance halls. “Whether the audience is sitting or dancing, we see the joy in their eyes and in their souls. There’s something very powerful about a large ensemble that really swings together,” Vilner says.

To deepen his understanding of Jazz music, Vilner began taking swing dance lessons. Those interactions led to the Jam meetings, led by Vilner and professional dancer Gaby Cook, and proved one of the main inspirations for the album. “I get inspired by a syncopated move – it can be just as inspiring as hearing a great musician or reading a book. There’s open conversation between swing music and swing dancing, as both of these art forms are rooted in improvisation.”

Nine of the tracks derive from a recording date close to the culmination of SW!NG OUT, the critically acclaimed collaboration that ran for two weeks at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater. The EVBB interacted with virtuoso professional dancers, directed by choreographer Caleb Teicher, and those improvisations inspired new compositions from the pen of Vilner. The New York Times called it ‘groundbreaking’ – “it was pretty magical,” says Vilner. “Ten musicians, twelve dancers making twenty-two great improvisers on stage.” The Jam! gives Vilner a chance to showcase his own artistic development, as a writer, composer and arranger as well as an improviser, a feat that distinguishes it from previous EVBB albums.

Vilner’s musical philosophy involves finding the common root of parallel artistic forms, and seeing if those conversations can inform mutual creativity. “Both jazz dance – vernacular jazz dance and lindy hop – and jazz music come from the same place, being rooted in Black American art forms. They complement each other.” But the big band is keen to reject any vintage or retro labels: “We’re reaching back to a tradition of moving and dancing to jazz music, delving deep into the sub-dialects within the language labelled as jazz, and then striving to tell a new, compelling story with these aesthetics in mind.”

That new story begins with a fresh take on Duke Ellington’s “Just A Lucky So-and-So”, a roomy big-swinging number that transports you into the dance hall immediately. Imani Rousselle’s vocals pack a punch, and there are growling, snuffling solos by Brandon Lee (trumpet) and Ron Wilkins (trombone). Vilner comes to the fore on “Chabichou”, named after Vilner’s favourite goat’s cheese, and reflecting his improvising roots in bebop and hard bop.

 “Another Time” is another Vilner original; pianist Jon Thomas provides the Monk-ish swagger: “It reflects my first years in New York, when things were rough and falling apart – but the music itself had a lot of soul and pure love.” The band breeze through the toe-tapping blues of the title track – with elegantly scored tutti lines, stylishly executed shout choruses and a strident contribution from baritone player Josh Lee –  before launching straight into Vilner’s irony-laced “contemporary pandemic love song”, “Will You Be My Quarantine?”

Monday Stroll” celebrates the legacy of Vilner’s mentor (and legendary saxophonist and flautist) Frank Wess, with Vilner reorchestrating a Wess combo date from 1957. Vilner features in a more fleet-footed role on “Chad’s Delight”, named after a “fast, Balboa dancer” whose movements Vilner took inspiration from.

There’s a lot of character to Vilner’s tracks – Brianna Thomas’s witty take on “Hard Hearted Hannah” is followed by an elegant arrangement of Sy Oliver’s classic “T’Ain’t What You Do”. Towards the end, Vilner steps up to the microphone and invites dancers to strut their stuff, paying tribute to the ‘Ambassador of Lindy’ Frankie Manning. Dance is also in the spotlight on the aptly named “Tap Tap Tap” (featuring Caleb Teicher on tap duties), following Brandon Bain’s suave take on Al Hibbler’s hit “After the Lights Go Down Low”, and Vilner’s commentary on the reliability of repair work in New York, “Call Me Tomorrow, I Come Next Week” (featuring the big tenor sound of Michael Hashim). 

Belleville” introduces a different mood; written during the time Vilner spent in the Parisian district, he adds an Ellington-inspired arrangement to a composition that’s already characterful. With Vilner on flute, Ron Wilkins channelling ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton on trombone and Brandon Lee on Solotone trumpet, the result is a richly evocative composition. There’s one last flourish on “Jumpin’ At the Woodside” – a call for dancers to jump out of their chairs for the last tune of the evening. 

Using jazz traditions as a springboard for a contemporary approach to syncopated rhythm, The Jam! achieves a brilliant representation of present and past jazz movements. Honing in on the core values and origins of swing, Vilner accesses inspiration for each composition through his unwavering curiosity with the improvising body. Conscientious, imaginative and novel at once, The Jam! finds Eyal Vilner and his big band in pursuit of the swinging textures of jazz, while perhaps redefining them along the way.

for: The Jam!

CHRIS SPECTOR
MIDWEST RECORD
"High octane throughout, any righteous swinger will recognize this as the real deal and not even fret over how it's from a nu generation." Read the review here.

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
Read the album announcement in the New Release Cheat Sheet here.

JIM HYNES
MAKING A SCENE
"Expertly blending the present and the past, Vilner’s Big Band offers yet another stirring mix of bright big band sound, a carousel of vocalists, and concise, poignant solos that swing hard throughout." Read the full review here.

WILL FRIEDWALD
NEW YORK SUN
"Mr. Vilner draws heavily on the past, yet this is not a band where time stands still — just the opposite: It jumps, it moves, it swings." Read the complete review here.

ANDREW PORETZ
BROADWAY WORLD
"It was an excellent set by the Eyal Vilner Big Band, and hearing nearly the entire album performed live [...] was quite exciting." Read the complete release event review here.

JACK BOWERS
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"..his persistence pays off big-time on the band's second album, The Jam!" Read the full review here.

LEN WEINREICH
LONDON JAZZ NEWS
"With fresh, affectionate approaches and meticulous musicianship, it's an exuberant and up-to-date celebration of ecstatic swing dancing.." Read the full review here.

GEORGE HARRIS
JAZZ WEEKLY
"Vintage swing sounds, with material both old and new, is served up by leader/arranger Eyal Vilner.." Read the full review here.

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICAL MEMOIRS
"All in all, this album is just plain joy!" Read the review here.

TOM HAUGEN
TAKE EFFECT
"..it makes for an essential listen in the area of modern big band sounds." Read the review here.