by Thomas Staudter –
Fans of le jazz hot, with an emphasis on deep grooves and winning melodies, will want to make their way to the Irvington Theater on Saturday, February 15 to hear the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band, a sextet that brings together some veteran virtuosos, younger dynamos and a vocalist fluent in R&B, soul and swing.
If you are wondering how such a remarkable ensemble has operated under the radar around the region noted by its moniker, it’s because the latest incarnation is still relatively new, with two key members only jumping aboard within the past four months or so.
Led by drummer Jeff Weiner from Yonkers, the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band was launched five years ago with an entirely different lineup than today’s group, save bassist Adrian Calonico, a native of Argentina now living in Suffern, New York. The intention from the start, said Weiner, was to perform updated arrangements of some of the top hits from the heyday of the jazz fusion era, which began in the late 1960s and was led by giants like Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Larry Coryell, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In jazz fusion, the instrumentalists are plugged into amplifiers and various affects applied to the sound to widen the soundscape and intensify the performances. After the venerated keyboardist Corea debuted his fusion band Return to Forever in 1971, he later introduced another fusion outfit called the Elektric Band with guitar, reeds and keyboards in the frontline—a model, name included, for his own band, Weiner admitted.
At first, Weiner and Calonico worked with some other musicians in different configurations. Gradually, the idea of putting together a fusion band that could attract mainstream audiences made more sense. “I realize that the general public cannot listen to avant-garde music and jazz that is not fully harmonic all night long,” the drummer remarked. “So, we brought in some incredible musicians who are versatile and thought about how to break the sets up, add some variety.”
Two instrumentalists now featured in the frontline are guitarist Dave Kain from Hartsdale, who is known for his work with saxophonists Joel Frahm and Noah Preminger, and multi-reedist Tim Veeder from Harrison, New York. Veeder, who plays saxophones and flute in the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band, is a busy sideman and educator outside of the band.
When it came time to look for a vocalist, Weiner, now 60, simply traveled back in time and reunited with one of his first bandleaders, Debbie Major, who some music fans will recall fronted the popular band Street Talk around Westchester and the Hudson Valley in the 1980s. “I remember the band played jazz tunes from (the renowned fusion group) Weather Report, and also Steely Dan,” said Weiner, “and then do a dinner set with songs from Dionne Warwick. Debbie can sing it all. She has a great falsetto. Every night we perform she seems to top herself. She’ll phrase notes and I’ll think to myself, ‘Where did you get that from?’ We’re lucky to have her in the band.”
With Major on vocals, a typical Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band set begins with a few instrumentals, like Corea’s “Blue Miles,” an Elektric Band favorite, and then follows with Michael Brecker’s dynamic “African Skies” (which can be found on his album Tales from the Hudson) and the Yellowjackets’ “Revelation.” Major then leads the group on tunes like Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” and a reading of the classy standard “Nature Boy” before finishing with something uptempo; the band returns for another instrumental or two, and Major closes the set.
“I think audiences for the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band come out to hear a certain instrumentation playing that delicious vibe you get in fusion and jazz, then another kind of connection is made when vocalist joins the band onstage,” said Major, who lives in Montgomery, New York. “We all bring our own style and feel for the music into the group, and the result is we generate an entirely unique coloration in our sound. The key is having musicians who can bring their experiences, talent and polish to the songs.”
Continued Major, “We’ve developed an extraordinary amount of trust in this group over the past several months. Every one of us has spent lots of nights on different bandstands; we know how to answer all the questions and solve any problems that may come up. It’s a nice balance of personalities: we get the job done with maximum enjoyment in the craft.”
The newest member of the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band is keyboardist Nir Kay, another Argentine albeit with Israeli parents, now residing in Yonkers. At 25, he is the youngest member of the band. An educator at the Lagond Music School in Elmsford, where the band rehearses, he was recruited to join the group this fall. In a short time, Kay has become the band’s musical director, picking out the material with Weiner and writing the arrangements for the band members.
“From my perspective, the Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band has amazing musicians, and they play great together, producing a very sophisticated sound,” said Kay, who also sings and leads his own group, which just released its first album, Run If You Don’t Understand. “I’m glad to be a part of it all. I think we are still in a transition phase, still trying to figure some things out. The best part is the mix of music we perform—every song is its own adventure within a recognizable style.”
The Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band will perform on Saturday, February 15 at the Irvington Theater, 85 Main St., Irvington, New York. The show begins at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit irvingtontheater.com or call call (914) 591-6602.
For more information about The Hudson Valley Electric Jazz Band, visit: www.hvejb.com.