Music Review: ‘Swinging With the Big Bands’ Is a Distillation of Democracy

June 13th, 2013

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

From left, Nellie McKay, Michael Feinstein and Sachal Vasandani in the Allen Room.

“The best there is.” That was Michael Feinstein’s accurate description of the musical forces resurrecting the swing era at the Allen Room on Wednesday evening. The program, “Swinging With the Big Bands,” repeated on Thursday, was the season finale of his Jazz at Lincoln Center series exploring the intersection of jazz and popular song, With fresh creative input, the series has blossomed into a finely balanced fusion of entertainment, historical erudition and first-rate musicality.

A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.

At the center of it all was New York’s premier swing band, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, augmented by members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, including Wynton Marsalis. The Nighthawks, while demonstrating an exceptional rhythmic precision and mastery of big-band dynamics, capture the quickening pulses of vintage band music with a subtle intensity that makes it feel contemporary.

Watching them in action, you marvel at the swing band as a distillation of democracy in action, its players and singers having more or less equal roles in a concept in which teamwork trumps individual virtuosity, leaving enough room for self-expression.

Mr. Feinstein, the evening’s host who also performed several numbers, was joined by Nellie McKay, Sachal Vasandani and Connie Evingson, wonderfully disciplined singers steeped in a vocal tradition in which any impulse to show off was subsumed to the goal of a harmonious, fluent sound. Ms. McKay, who has long cited Doris Day as an idol, sang Day’s early hit with Les Brown, “Sentimental Journey.” She and Mr. Vasandani brought flawless intonation and poise to the Helen O’Connell-Bob Eberly duet “Green Eyes,” with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra. A light, springy re-creation of the Tommy Dorsey hit “Marie,” with Mr. Vasandani singing the Frank Sinatra part, was outstanding. Ms. Evingson’s version of “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” Peggy Lee’s career-defining hit for Benny Goodman, had just the right mixture of insinuation and toughness.

There was a flash of humor with a resuscitation of “Girl Talk,” composed by Neal Hefti in the mid-1960s with lyrics by Bobby Troup, which was introduced as “the last great male-chauvinist song of the era” and sung deadpan by Mr. Vasandani.

It certainly was not the last of its kind, and it is by no means great. Heard today, its lyrics — “The weaker sex, the speaker sex we mortal males behold/ But though we joke we wouldn’t trade you for a ton of gold” — are cringingly funny.

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