Sometimes what inspires a musician/composer to create is not what the audience hears in the music. Such is the case for Eyal Vilner‘s Big Band production of Hanukkah. This saxophonist/composer/arranger shows enormous pride in his Jewish heritage, as he reimagines traditional songs of his ancestors in a swing jazz/big band format. Recorded in the Museum at Eldridge Street in Manhattan, which was once a synagogue, Vilner leads an ensemble of 17 musicians and three vocalists.
“Prelude” opens the recording with anthem-like verses performed by the horns. The big brassy sound displays a straight and orderly formation reflective of a high school band. The rumble of the drums at the bottom of the piece cuts into the mourning-like character of the structured verses with a burst of energy. Traditionally, the tune is played after the lighting of the Hanukkah candles to announce the start of the Jewish holiday. “Maoz Tzur” moves the recording into a party atmosphere, showing features that resemble the swinging ballroom ambiences of the big band jazz era. The buoyant pulse of the rhythmic timing propels the freestyle scatting of Vilner’s saxophone solo.
The recording maintains a big band swing level through “Sevivon” and “Oh Hanukkah.” Both will remind audiences of the 1940s soundtracks for the “Road to…” series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour with music composed by Jimmy Van Heusen. A jungle atmosphere is created with vibrating shimmies from what resembles a tribal tambourine. Tweeting flutes produce what one could perceive is a menagerie of birds. The bass register from the salvo of trombones resonates like the stomp of elephants. The rattling horns create a bastion of wild animals. This isn’t what Vilner had in mind. The shimmies are meant to represent the spin of a dreidel. The jungle atmosphere is produced by a Brazilian samba rhythm meant to put in mind images of a carnival, though the music echoes the sounds of a wild jungle.
A similar miscommunication happens with “Oh Hanukkah” as well. The track showcases the harmony vocals of Tamar Korn, Martina DaSilva, and Vanessa Perea. The threesome recalls the harmony vocals of the Andrews Sisters, circa 1945, though the image which Vilner intended to project is of the Boswell Sisters. The track shares more traits with a boogie woogie/jumping blues template than the showtunes/vaudeville style of the Boswell Sisters. However the audience interprets these songs makes no difference to the outcome. Both tracks are equally appealing and delightful.
The wail of a horn at the onset of “Mi Yemalel” resonates like a medieval court minstrel blowing a trumpet to herald the entrance of royalty. The wail is actually made from a shofar played by Vilner. The piece isn’t meant to herald royalty reminiscent of the Medieval Period. The piece is meant to tell the story of a great war from 200 BC. Jutting horns sizzle with a fiery ard/or as a jungle-themed rhythm carries them. What may remind audiences of the Latin-infused, big band swing music of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra from the 1950s is based in Middle Eastern motifs in Vilner’s reimagination of the piece.
The recording feels steep in 1940s-’50s big band swing when mainstream radio played tunes composed by such artisans as Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, and Duke Ellington. Vilner reimagines traditional holiday songs from the Jewish culture with big band swing motifs. However audiences relate to these tracks makes no difference. It does not take away from the joy they incite in listeners.