No retrospective of the Great American Songbook would be complete without a look at modern masters of the form. There are several to choose from, and all of them have much to recommend them. Michael Feinstein (born 1956) is a wonderful scholar of the material and a noted Grammy-winning performer, as well. Harry Connick (born 1967) is perhaps the most aggressive seeker of Frank Sinatra’s throne, and he, too, has much to commend him. But neither of these artists, talented as they are, have managed to quite capture the true sparkle of the 1930s, the era when this music was most inventive, most vital and spoke in the most uniquely American dialect. Feinstein is at times too precious and too mannered in a post-War supper-club style; Connick with his brassy bombast too closely aligned with a Sinatra-esque Las Vegas vibe. Both artists understand the music, but it seems to them grafted on, a niche they occupy rather than an artistic mission.
For this correspondent, the finest modern interpreter of the American musical canon is Vince Giordano, who fronts the magnificent Nighthawks Orchestra. Giordano, born in Brooklyn in 1952, is an avid (one may say rabid) scholar of the sound of the 1920s and 1930s, and has a unique genius for this American idiom. Vince plays the bass saxophone and is the Nighthawks’ only vocalist. He uses his magnificent library of more than 60,000 arrangements to capture that unique sound, and, when performing live, introduces the sets. Always at his side is an authentic 1920s era microphone.
Vince and the Nighthawks have performed at many of New York City’s most famous musical venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the 92nd Street Y and the Red Blazer. For a long time they were a weekly feature at the lost, lamented supper club the Cajun in Chelsea; they are now at Sofia’s Restaurant, 221 West 46th Street, every Monday and Tuesday from 8:00 – 11:00 p.m.
And it is not just lucky New Yorkers who can hear Giordano and the Nighthawks. Vince’s playing with the Dick Hyman Orchestra can be heard on the soundtracks of several Woody Allen films; he provided music for the CD celebrating the release of Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter 2004 biopic, De-Lovely; he can be heard on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) and Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies (2009). And fans of the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire (which features Vince as the bandleader) should know that the soundtrack album has just been released. In addition, Vince and the Nighthawks are frequent guests on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
It is here that your correspondent must confess to great admiration for Vince – both as a man and for his brilliant musicianship. He has approached his craft and this musical idiom with a sense of mission, and his love for his art is infectious. I have followed his career for more than a decade, and have caught his shows at the Cajun, Sofia’s, the Red Blazer and Carnegie Hall. Listening to the Nighthawks has been one of the great joys of my adulthood – his music is so energetic, so freewheeling and so much fun. It is no exaggeration at all to say that he has made me grin till my face hurt, and cry tears of joy.
So what, one wonders, is it that is so unique about the Giordano sound? It is a puzzle not easily solved for the music is so seamless, the sound so natural. Listening to Vince is akin to hearing a consummate artist married to the right material – it becomes an extension of the man and he becomes, in a way, the music.
A perfectly fine example of this is the great Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). Armstrong was not a great singer, but everything about him, from his phrasing and his delivery to his peerless trumpeting, made the man music. Vince has this same gift – when playing the Great American Songbook, Vince becomes the music.
Watching him play is an unqualified delight. Unlike most of the post-rock era musicians who behave as if they are suffering, or bearing the great weight of their ‘art,’ Vince singing or playing is consumed by joy. This cat grins, and when he plays the bass, he is dancing with himself. He is an example to every modern musician and every lover of music.
Vince has recorded many fine CDs, all of which are available directly through him. My personal favorite is Cheek to Cheek, a collection of songs associated with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His rendition of The Carioca is simply the finest instrumental recording of the song, ever. His take on The Continental is perhaps nearly as ethereal as the latter Astaire-Oscar Peterson recording, and Let Yourself Go is Vince at his most energetic and fun-loving best.
His Cotton Club Revisited includes a delightful Stormy Weather and the hyper-jazzed Minnie the Moocher. His Harlem Holiday is nearly enough to make you want a holiday of your own, and Get Yourself a New Broom and Sweep the Blues Away a tonic for most anything that ails you.
Quality Shout! is packed with delights, particularly Mournful Serenade, Sugar Food Stomp and Stoppin’ the Traffic. Quality Shout! Is one of Giordano’s most personal recordings; the tunes selected are off-the-radar to all but the most dedicated hot-music devotees, and it was recorded using a small number of microphones, creating balances acoustically and by positioning the musicians to best recreate a late 1920s sound.
For Vince’s album The Goldkette Project, he worked with Bill Challis, who was the staff arranger for Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. Challis was the man behind both of those band’s most jazz-oriented numbers, and he also later wrote for Frankie Trumbauer’s small-group dates with Bix Beiderbecke. Challis befriended a very young Vince and his siblings, and The Goldkette Project is a labor of love. That love can be heard in every number. Particularly adept tunes include Sometimes I’m Happy, Idolizing, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Slow River.
Vince recently broadened his musical net by tackling the Big Band hits of the later 1930s and 40s. His album Moonlight Serenade is a musical ode to the war years, and his In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade and You Made Me Love You are simply magnificent.
These discs are all available at $17 each (which includes postage and tax) with a check or money order made out to Vince Giordano at 1316 Elm Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11230-5916. I would be hard pressed to think of a better way to spend your money.
Coming soon to the Jade Sphinx, a special, two-part interview with Vince Giordano!