Looking Forward - An Interview with Eyal Vilner

Introducing the Eyal Vilner Big Band

Eyal Vilner is an up and coming composer/arranger/saxophonist, though based in New York currently, his roots began in Tel Aviv where this young musician pursued his passion of music and eventually found his hunger for Big Band and the art of composing. Vilner’s natural ability to compose has garnered him praise and the opportunity to perform with NEA Jazz Master’s Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Jimmy Owens. In fact, his arrangement of “Bright Mississippi” is featured on Owens’, The Monk Project.

What makes Vilner standout as one to watch is his innate ability to write very intricate counterpoint and harmony. Not only does he preserve the history of Big Band, but his auspicious debut Introducing the Eyal Vilner Big Band, advances the tradition in a way that takes the Big Band sound and models it into relevancy of today’s jazz moniker. His original compositions are complex, yet swing with verve and even though it is complex in nature, the music is so well written it could almost play itself.

Keeping a Big Band working in today’s economy is a hugely ambitious task, but thankfully with Vilner at the helm, it is easy to see why so many top-notch New York musicians and luminary names in jazz are keen to this “one to watch” composer/arranger in their sights.

I got a chance to sit down with Eyal Vilner, we explored his formative years, what “jazz” means to him and the importance of Big Band within the jazz fabric, along with what it’s been like for him working with giants in jazz at such a young age.

H. Allen Williams: Tell us about your formative years and how you decided to become a saxophonist as well as a composer and arranger?

Eyal Vilner: I started out as a violinist and around the age of 14, I found I wasn’t drawn too much to classical music. I mean I wasn’t dying to finish school to run home and practice. I started listening to different kinds of music and before our summer break I talked to my music history teacher about my dilemma. She copied me a tape with Irish violin on one side and a duo album of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt on the other. I must have listened to this tape hundreds of times that summer and eventually I realized I was more attracted to the jazz side of the tape… I decided to check out some more jazz records and a friend of my parents gave me some tapes of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker. Now at this point it was clear to me I wanted to play the saxophone!

As for composing, I think it was always very natural to me, even before the violin, when I studied recorder and always made up melodies and loved structuring and developing them on a paper. Later, in high school I got into arranging, listening to a lot of the hard bop classics like Benny Golson, Horace Silver and Oliver Nelson.

H. Allen Williams: How do you feel that your Israeli upbringing has influenced your music?

Eyal Vilner: I think that since I didn’t grow up in the States, where jazz was created and played very often, I had to work harder to find it and to dig into its tradition to really learn it. You know, really checking out the old records and transcribing them. We also had some great teachers who have been In New York and did a great job forwarding this music to the younger generation. They managed to really create a scene and a vibe. Meeting Arnie Lawrence who lived in Israel at that time was also an amazing experience for me.

H. Allen Williams: How do you feel audiences differ if at all, from the United States?

Eyal Vilner: Well it’s definitely smaller, to start with... I think that common people here in New York, who are not huge jazz fans, can understand and relate to this music a little better. Some of them grew up listening to these songs in movies or on the radio, so when you play a standard, people can relate to it more. The jazz audience in Israel is not as big, but is very supportive and engaged.

H. Allen Williams: What does the word “Jazz” mean to you?

Eyal Vilner: That’s a hard one... sometimes I’m not even sure. Barry says that we are the continuation of classical music. Harmonic-wise I guess he is right. Feel-wise, when I think of jazz I think of the rhythm, of swing, of the blues and of improvisation and self-expression.

H. Allen Williams: What role do you see Big Band playing in the future of jazz?

Eyal Vilner: The Big Band format is as important and as essential in jazz as it has ever been. Big band in jazz is like the symphonic orchestra in classical music. It’s also the real school for so many things, be it ensemble playing, playing in a section, play in tune, phrase, swing, follow the lead player or learn how to lead a section. When I’m wearing the composer/arranger hat, Big Band is my school as well. That’s where I really learned or I still learn how to write, what works and what doesn’t.

On the one hand the Big Band preserves the tradition of this music and allows us to deepen our understanding of it. But it also allows us to take it and advance it and use it as our instrument to create our versions of songs or our originals.

H. Allen Williams: What is the quantitative difference between your Big Band writing styles, compared to others before you?

Eyal Vilner: My big band is slightly different from the standard format. In addition to the rhythm section we have 2 trumpets and 2 trombones on the back row and 5 saxes (doubling on flutes, clarinets and bass clarinet) on the front row. This combination of instruments gives the band the flexibility of a small group but it can also get the power and richness of sounds and colors of an orchestra. When I’m writing for the band I’m trying to create a special combination of instruments from the different sections. I also like to write individual lyrical lines for the different players as opposed to only full sections at a time. Then you can have couple of new sections and individual lines all happening at the same time… It’s a cool effect…

H. Allen Williams: Your Big Band writing style is very intricate. How do you balance composing and arranging with allowing flexibility and freedom for each individual player to create within the context of a piece?

Eyal Vilner: “Epilogue,” the closing track on our album is a good example for that. It’s a kind of through-composed piece, story that is being told by three story tellers: John Mosca on the trombone, Ned Goold on the tenor and myself on the clarinet. Now, some parts of the story are written and the others are open for solos. For the solos sections I only left chord changes for the soloists. I like it because it blurs the separation between ‘now I’m playing what’s on the paper’ and ‘now I’m blowing a killin solo’… It engages the musicians to think of the whole composition and not just their solo parts. Some time it will also make the solo more lyrical and the written part played in a more personal way...

H. Allen Williams: What was your process in choosing players to properly convey your compositional message within the Eyal Vilner Big Band setting?

Eyal Vilner: I think the first thing you get from a musician is his/her sound and rhythm. That’s probably the most important thing for me when I’m looking for musicians (and also what I emphasize when I’m practicing myself). The basics are really to know the tradition, how to phrase and swing and play soulfully. We got a lot of doublings for the Saxes so that’s a necessity as well...

Apart from these basics, I’m trying to put together a variety of voices that would balance each other and would give me a wide pallet of colors to work with. When I’m composing or arranging for the band I’m trying to write for these individuals in mind and not for a random 2nd tenor, for example. It’s more noticeable in the originals but also there in the arrangements and orchestrations. Some phrases would fit one player better than the other, even if both are playing the same instrument. I try to imagine myself standing in front of nine individuals (or thirteen, including myself and the rhythm section) and write things that would suit each of them. So when I need to choose musicians, I’m looking for interesting colors to paint with.

H. Allen Williams: Tell us about recording your debut CD and the process overall?

Eyal Vilner: Well, we’ve been performing for about three years before we went to the studio, so the band was already pretty tight. Most of the arrangements were pretty polished too, I tend to rewrite these charts, to try different stuff and make corrections. I was waiting for an opportunity for us to play couple of shows in a row and luckily we were invited to play a week of long engagement at Jazz at Lincoln Center - Dizzy’s Club-Coca Cola. Playing there night after night was really the best rehearsal we could ask for… I scheduled a day and a half at Bennett studios for the following week. Interestingly, almost all the takes we picked were first take on the second day. I think you can really hear the energy and the liveliness of the band on this recording, just like another set at Dizzy’s…

I worked closely with a good friend and a great sound engineer, Jonathan Jacobi, who did a magnificent job mixing the album. We spent a lot of time trying out stuff and making it sound just about right. The beautiful art work was done by two amazing designers who also happen to be my relatives, Yael Alkalay and Vadik Bakman.

Since I produced it all myself, I had to plan all the little details; from transportation to food, placements of the musicians in the room, microphones and of course, the music side, play and conduct the band. I was lucky to have good friends and experienced colleagues who gave me a lot of tips and helped organize it. It was a great experience, can’t wait to do it again!

H. Allen Williams: I noticed you have been writing and performing with some of the NEA greats such as; Jimmy Owens, Frank Wess and Jimmy Heath. How do you feel this has influenced you, if at all?

Eyal Vilner: I feel very lucky to have the chance to work with these giants. Playing with them and even just being around them is an inspiring and spiritual experience… It’s always a learning experience too. Arranging for Jimmy Owens’ new record, The Monk Project, was great. He really gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted with this song and I’m glad he liked it... The allstars line up also included: Kenny Baron, Wycliffe Gordon, Howard Johnson, Marcus Strikland, Kenny Davis and Winard Harper. It was great to see how these guys work together, rehearse and record.

Hanging and playing with Frank is always incredible. You learn so much from his playing, his sound, his phrasing and his soulfulness… It’s inspiring to see someone at his age play SO good with such clarity and creativity. One of the times I’ve been to his house, he asked about this old song Billie Holiday recorded, he heard it on the radio the night before and asked if any of us knew it and can teach him the song. That was so beautiful to see he still wants to learn and grow.

A few months ago we played at the New School Jazz’s 25th Anniversary Legacy Concert and we had the three of them as guests of the big band. I was very excited and nervous before the sound check, which was also our last rehearsal with the guests. All of them were so professional and relaxed. I remember Jimmy Heath in particular was just so supportive and cool about the whole thing. I don’t think he knows this, but from my perspective, he just showed me that this is what we do in life. We can play these songs, we know it, and there is nothing to be nervous about.

H. Allen Williams: It’s obvious you’ve done a lot of honest thinking about your work and direction. How would you describe your music to an audience if they have never heard you before?

Eyal Vilner: First of all, I’d invite them to check it for themselves, we got free samples of all the tracks on our website www.eyalvilner.com, as well as on CD Baby, iTunes, etc. I don’t really like categorizing music, as Duke said, “there are two kinds of music, good and bad”. I hope we could fit the first one. The music definitely has a strong connection to the roots of jazz and its tradition of swing and what’s called ‘bop’, but with a wink or a little extra spice that gives it a fresh take. I guess the important things for me when I’m playing and writing are to be lyrical, swinging and do it with ‘Kavana’, as Arnie Lawrence used to tell us. It means (in Hebrew) ‘intention’ or ‘with direction’, playing from your heart and soul.

H. Allen Williams: What does the future hold for Eyal Vilner?

Eyal Vilner: Who knows? Only good things, I hope… In the near future we are doing a residency at the Garage Restaurant in the Greenwich Village. We’re playing there every second Tuesday of the month till the end of 2012. It’s a great place to check the band in a more intimate settings and a chance to hear us premiering the freshest new material, which for some reason I tend to finish writing in the morning of the show…

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H. Allen Williams