Having recently listened to an old podcast of Marc Maron interviewing Weird Al Yankovic and discussing just how “uncool” it was to be stuck playing the accordion, I must say I was less than enthusiastic when The Montreal Sessions, an album from a group I had not heard of, the North American Jazz Alliance, a quintet featuring guitar, vibraphone and—you guessed it—accordion arrived in the mail. After all, the accordion isn’t exactly a staple of the modern jazz ensemble and probably rarely if ever had been. Not that I had any special animus to the instrument, it simply wasn’t on my radar. Accordions stir up visions of polkas and Italian weddings, not mellow jazz.
Turns out, stereotyping musical instruments is no less useful than stereotyping people. The Montreal Sessions is old line mainstream jazz played with finesse, and rather than sticking out like the proverbial sore digit, the accordion fits right in. You listen and you have to wonder why it doesn’t show up more often in modern ensembles.
Indeed, it has a history. As described in the album’s liner notes, the North American Jazz Alliance is the brainchild of producer Peter Maxymych. “The idea behind The Montreal Sessions,” he says, “was to recreate a sound that was heard in clubs and other venues in the 1960s and ’70s. The accordion was the lead instrument in those groups and the music was inspired by Art Van Damme, who led a quintet with vibes, guitar, bass and drums.” It was a sound which had largely disappeared over the years, a sound worth resurrecting but in a “fresh and modern way.”
To that end he brought together a group of musicians from Canada and the U.S. and the resulting album of classics, both rare and well known, was recorded over three days in Montreal. Mirroring the Van Damme quintet Steve Hobbs, who did the arranging, plays vibes. He is joined by guitarist Greg Clayton, Dave Laing on drums and Alec Walkington on bass. The all-important accordion is in the hands of Kenny Kotwitz, a Los Angeles studio musician, who Maxymych found on YouTube, and coincidentally was a friend of Van Damme and had played at his funeral. Considering that Hobbs and Kotwitz had never met and neither knew the Canadian musicians, it is surprising how quickly and seamlessly the ensemble came together.
The set begins with “Just One of Those Things,” and some nice solo work from Kotwitz, Hobbs and Clayton forecasting what’s to come. “Close Your Eyes” follows with the first of three vocals from guest Montreal jazz singer John Labelle. He also sings on “Nobody Else But Me” and “Dancing in the Dark.” The liner notes indicate the vocalist was influenced by Frank Sinatra, and although it’s fair to ask what jazz singer isn’t, you can hear “old blue eyes” in his vocals. That, by the way, is never a bad thing.
“Cute,” which swing fans will recognize from the Count Basie Orchestra is a nice opportunity for drummer Laing, and Kotwitz plays Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” with the sensitivity it deserves. Hobbs and Clayton chip in some sweet solos. It turns into one of the highlights of the album. “Charade” has an interesting opening solo form Clayton who shines on “It Could Happen to You.” “Angel Eyes,” “Delilah,” and “Only Trust Your Heart” round out the program which ends with a solid closer, “That’s All.”
The Monteal Sessions is mainstream jazz as good as it gets. I don’t know if Maxymych’s dream will put the accordion back on the jazz front burner, but if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will. What I do know is that this is an album that does the memory of Art Van Damme proud.