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Vince Giordano: New York, NY, August 14, 2012

Andrew J. Sammut By

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Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks
Sofia's Restaurant
New York, NY
August 14, 2012
Vince Giordano receives well-deserved attention for the twenties and thirties repertoire he's brought to the radio on A Prairie Home Companion, films such as 2008's Revolutionary Road and 2004's The The Aviator, and most recently the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, for which Giordano and his band the Nighthawks received a Grammy. Coverage also mentions Giordano's home, full of records, instruments, sheet music and more, evidencing his lifelong dedication to this era. Yet, perhaps Giordano and the Nighthawks' most important contribution is ensuring that this repertoire and era remain live music, every Monday and Tuesday night at Sofia's in midtown Manhattan.
Words like "early" and "vintage" often appear when describing the Nighthawks, yet the band simply has its own style, chronological qualifiers notwithstanding. Filling in for regular Nighthawks drummer Arnie Kinsella, John Meyers' snare technique and finger cymbals, Jim Fryer's hot euphonium, and soloists sticking to just one chorus were either "authentic" touches or simply a different aesthetic, as productive for these musicians as the post-war jazz vocabulary is for others.
The Nighthawks perform a rotating program of classics and obscurities from Giordano's collection. Instead of the typical head-solos-head format, it's what the bandleader glowingly describes as ..."a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz." Tuesday night included intriguing works such as Gordon Jenkins' arrangement of "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," pairing clarinet megaphones with an array of brass mutes and band inflections for a warm, varied palette. "Changes" illuminated the distinct color of the baritone sax purring underneath the band that Paul Whiteman's original record just doesn't do justice to, while the three-part soprano sax soli on Rube Bloom's "Spring Fever" was both novel and impressive, given the blistering tempo and this instrument's notorious intonation.

Giordano's band, consisting of New York pros obviously at home in any musical setting, play with a drive, humor and precision that takes this music beyond mere recreation. "Glad Rag Doll" pitted Andy Rothstein's sentimental violin against the band's raucous exclamations. Subtle dynamic shifts and ensemble transparency added linear motion to the harmonic pyramids of Fud Livingston's "Imagination." Whiteman's chart for "Wang Wang Blues," which Giordano described as a transitional piece between early jazz and ragtime, was an entirely unique rhythmic and structural creation, whether composed eighty years or eighty minutes ago, with contributions from Jon-Erik Kellso's cornet, Dan Block's piping clarinet and Giordano's swooping tuba underneath.

Solos are a means rather than an end of musical expression for the Nighthawks, with every member of the eleven-piece band taking a turn at some point. Jazz purists may be unnerved by the band playing many of the same solos heard on the original records, but Mike Ponella sounded just as inspired by Louis Armstrong's tortuous, crackling solo on "Symphonic Raps," while Fryer's trombone on "Radio Rhythm" was just as sinister and swinging as when Benny Morton played the tune with Fletcher Henderson's band. To paraphrase Armstrong, sometimes it's helpful not to worry about which cow makes the milk and just enjoy the flavor.

Giordano did open up some charts for additional solos, such as a white-knuckled "Casa Loma Stomp." He also mixed in improvised additions, like his own impressive bass sax bridge on "Glad Rag Doll" (Giordano also slapped string bass and occasionally sang in a rhythmic, earnest tenor). The Nighthawks also stripped down to a smaller front line with rhythm section to jam on warhorses such as "That's A Plenty." Guitarist/banjoist Ken Salvo and pianist Peter Yarin (put through his paces a few times on lightning fast features) rounded out the rhythm section and supported the Nighthawks' buoyant, infectious rhythm.

Rhythm might be this music's most recognizable element, and judging from the dancers and listeners, perhaps the Nighthawks' most magnetic draw. Sometimes more stomp than swing, other times more familiarly smooth (for example on a glow-in-the-dark "Begin the Beguine," spotlighting Dan Levinson's clarinet), hearing The Nighthawks live isn't about parsing out which musical ideas are modern or historic, but getting to hear a variety of different approaches to rhythm, texture and jazz. Call it avant-garde, call it old-fashioned, just be sure to call it "music."

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