Although a goodly number of seasonal big-band albums have passed through these portals over the years, this is the first one to our recollection devoted to Hanukkah, the eight-day-long festival of lights that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the time of a successful Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. As leader Eyal Vilner was born in Tel Aviv before relocating to the States and making New York his home, that is hardly surprising. Also unsurprising is the quality of musicianship on display, nor Vilner's impressive charts, which entwine contemporary jazz with traditional Jewish and Middle Eastern themes.
The album opens with the brief, chorale-based "Prelude," on which the band as a whole excels, followed by the animated "Maoz Tzur" whose buoyant perspective arises straight from the Swing Era. Vilner solos brightly on alto sax, as does pianist Jack Glottman. On "Sevivon" (The Dreidel Song), Vilner pivots southward, evoking the ambience of a Brazilian carnival to underscore an eloquent solo by flutist Itai Kriss, which leads to a section inspired by choro music and another dedicated to Batacuda music showcasing drummer Eran Fink. The impulsive "Oh Hanukkah!," whose ebullience can be traced to the Roaring Twenties, features a sprightly trio vocal by Tamara Korn, Martina DaSilva and Vanessa Perea (reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters or, later, the Andrews Sisters), preceding a vigorous solo by tenor Evan Arntzen. The shofar makes its appearance on the high-minded finale, "Mi Yemalel," whose Middle Eastern aspect recalls a great war from 200 BC. As in war, its measured preamble gives way to battlefield chaos, led by screaming trumpets and punctuated by emphatic rhythms.
As tributes go, Hanukkah is exemplary, and Vilner and the band should be applauded for that. Before the applause has ended, however, it must be notedif only for the benefit of those to whom such things matterthat the album's playing time is roughly twenty-one minutes, or about one-quarter of a CD's maximum capacity. As if to rub salt in that wound, there is a "bonus" track, "These Candles," that is only available digitally. The album's twenty-one minutes are well- spent, and if that abbreviated playing time doesn't bother you, then by all means join the celebration.
Prelude; Maoz Tzur; Sevivon; Oh Hanukkah!; Mi Yemalel.
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