I have to say I hadn't expected this at all. A CD dedicated to resurrecting a riff on the late great Art van Damme, king of the jazz accordionists? Yow! And with vocals no less? While tackling the Great American Songbook? Somebody get the smelling salts, I'm listing to starboard! The North America Jazz Alliance is a sextet of fearsomely talented gentlemen demonstrating metronomic precision, nightcub grace, and fierce swing all though The Montreal Sessions, but there are a number of surprises as one goes along, not the least of which is the fact that Kenny Kotwitz was given Art's own hand-made Excelsior accordion by the van Damme family after the giant's passing in 2010, and he does the man and the air-piano proud.
Then there's John Labelle, the singer on three cuts. Shall I make a confession? I'm sorry but I don't find Frank Sinatra the god he's portrayed to be. Heretical, I know, but hey, someone has to take the counter-argument on the poor Mafioso, and I volunteered me. Nor am I all that taken by Mark Murphey. Sure, both those warblers have their ways, I can see that they'd be popular, but I happen to demand more in my singers even in that rhymey sprechestimmey mode, and Labelle provides that extra mile, subtler in inflection, smoother in delivery, more believable overall. It may be that I'll work my way back to Frankie through cats like Labelle one day, but, for the moment, that's the lay of the land. I love instrumental jazz, but the guy's not on enough cuts to completely satisfy me, which is saying something. Listen to his take on Close your Eyes, and you'll understand my viewpoint. Smooth as a $100 bottle of Scotch.
But, yes, the lion's share here is completely instrumental and a signature exposition of what it means to be consummate professionals. Did I mention there's a set of vibes in the ensemble? There is, manned by Steve Hobbs, also the arranger of the entire affair, and the cat has a very Gary Burton-esque touch with strong Hampton influences providing sparkling counterpoint to Kotwitz. Credit producer Peter Maxymych with gathering the band, though, as the concept of a vibes/accordion/guitar-centered quintet was his. The last of that core trio, Greg Clayton on guitar, doesn't get quite as much of the center stage as I'd prefer, but his presence is definitely what was needed, as the genre depended on the instrument to serve double duty in the rhythm section and as a lead instrument. Without it, much would go wanting. But, really, the true shining light to this whole thing is the stratosphere-high level of musicianship. That, I think, is what will really have van Damme himself sporting a Cheshire smile in the hereafter, knocking the trumpet out of Gabriel's hands, replacing it with a 'cordine, a pair of shades, a skinny tie, and the advice to cool his jets and just go with the swingin' flow…and I mean suh-wingin'!
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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