By Cameron Hughes

I saw the early set of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks at the Birdland Theatre Monday night (315 West 44th Street), and as always with this awesome big band, it was a thrilling evening. Using period instruments (some of which are truly exotic, like Andy Stein‘s Stroh violin with an attached horn for amplification, and the sax/clarinet megaphones), the ensemble played a joyful collection of jazz mostly from the 20s and 30s. It’s a fantastic program, and man can these cats swing!

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks are something of an institution in Manhattan, frequently playing extended engagements at various venues throughout the city. They favor popular songs from the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton, but include an impressive array of deeper cuts from the era. Giordano, the leader, started performing professionally at 15. He plays bass saxophone, aluminum(!) upright string bass, and tuba, and his knowledge of music and arrangements from the period is encyclopedic. He gives you detailed information on the composers, arrangers, and recording artists of each number, and the band’s respect for and love of the music comes through in their passionate playing. There’s a reason they can be heard on a plethora of soundtracks for TV and films, including HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club, Woody Allen’s Café Society, and Martin Scorcese’s soon-to-be-released Killers of The Flower Moon based on the searing nonfiction book of the same title. If you think only electric instruments and modern tunes are exciting, you need to hear this outfit.

Tonight was characteristically exceptional. Needing no warm-up, they were on fire from the opening notes of the first number in the evening’s first set. Most of the songs in the band’s book are known mainly from old 78rpm recordings. Because of the low fidelity, we tend to dismiss these records as noises from an ancient, unrelatable time. But when heard live like this, performed by musicians with a deep connection to the music, those same songs and arrangements come to life in a shocking and visceral way. This music deserves to be heard, especially when played at this high a level. If an hour of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks doesn’t improve your mood, nothing will!

Big bands generally have a hierarchy of musicians in their lineup; first trumpet, second trumpet, and so on. The Nighthawks seem to be made up of all leads who can sight-read flawlessly any chart Giordano throws (sometimes literally!) at them, and can sail through seemingly any audience request. Each player gets at least one solo spot, and each musician shines. If there are any “firsts” or “seconds” here, it’s hard to tell; this is a tight collection of talented, telepathic players.

Some standouts tonight were Dan Levinson, whose excellent sax playing is bettered only by his clarinet solos; percussionist Douglas Marriner (grandson of Sir Neville Marriner – yes, THAT Neville Marriner); and newcomer Summer Camargo on trumpet, a 21-year-old Juilliard student who, though tentative at times, holds her own against these proficient veterans. Camargo’s soulful tone on West End Blues was a highlight of the night. And of course Giordano is memorable and engaging throughout, talking to the audience between numbers and cracking jokes with the band. Space doesn’t allow for the praise each musician deserves, but know there isn’t a weak player in this exciting ensemble.


Songlist for the 5:30 set:

The bandSam Hoyt, trumpet; Summer Camargo, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Will Anderson, alto sax/clarinet/soprano sax; Mark Lopeman, tenor sax/clarinet/soprano sax; Dan Levinson, alto sax/clarinet/soprano sax; Andy Stein, violin/baritone sax; Peter Yarin, piano; Arnt Arntzen, guitar/banjo; Douglas Marriner, drums/percussion; Vince Giordano, bass sax, tuba, string bass

Vince Giordano And The Nighthawks are in residency at The Birdland Theatre, 315 West 44th Street (between  8th & 9th Avenues), New York, NY 10036. (212) 581-3080. They appear Mondays nights July 17, 24 and 31 at 5:30 and 8:30.

Tickets are $20-$40 and are available HERE.