The L.A. Jazz Quintet’s When Lights Are Low is significant in several ways. It is a superior mood album, a revival of the classic sound of the Art Van Damme Quintet, an opportunity for one to hear five masterful musicians blending together, and a very good excuse to listen to some wonderful music.
The evolution of the project began years ago with Peter Maxymych. Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, he took up the accordion and was inspired by the great Art Van Damme. “Back when I was in my twenties, I had a trio and quartet, often playing at ski lodges. I always had weekend jobs performing at different places. Montreal was a hub for jazz music and we had great clubs, bars, casinos and all sorts of venues. I was never a terrific musician but we worked regularly. Since I never intended to have music be my main career, eventually I switched to real estate and had success as an entrepreneur.”
Years later, as a labor of love, Peter Maxymych decided to produce an album that would recreate the sound of the Art Van Damme Quintet. Art Van Damme (1920-2010) played the accordion from the age of nine, was classically trained, and developed a love for jazz and swing as a teenager. He joined the Ben Bernie Orchestra in 1941 and was very busy during 1945-60 when he was on the staff of NBC, performing on a countless number of radio and television shows. He made his first recordings as a leader in 1945 and by 1947 was leading a quintet comprised of accordion, vibes, guitar, bass, and drums. The same year, George Shearing put together his famous quintet with the same instrumentation except for his piano in place of the accordion (although Shearing did on rare occasions double on accordion).
Van Damme recorded regularly during the next 35 years (at least 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman), not only with his quintet which at times included Johnny Smith (1962) or Joe Pass (1970) on guitar, but with Harry James and Jo Stafford. He had a daily 15-minute radio program (The Art Van Damme Show) for NBC, toured Europe, Russia and New Zealand, and was active until shortly before his death at age 89. Kenny Kotwitz, one of his only students and (along with Frank Marocco) one of the very few accordionists to record with him, said this about Van Damme’s style: “The secret of his playing and why he had such a different sound was because of his bellowing technique. Art used the bellows for his phrasing, playing each note like a horn player, varying the dynamics and the attack; every note was treated like a separate entity. He had a totally different sound than everyone else.”
For what would become The Montreal Sessions, Peter Maxymych hired veteran vibraphonist Steve Hobbs to write the arrangements and he utilized three top- notch musicians from Montreal: guitarist Greg Clayton, bassist Alec Walkington and drummer Dave Laing. He remembers, “I needed the right accordion player for the project. I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on You Tube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this. After contacting him, I found out that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme so it all made perfect sense.“
The Montreal Sessions, which was released by the Challenge label, was a success even though the arrangements were not exactly in Art Van Damme’s style and the playing was a bit looser with longer solos than Van Damme generally featured. Peter Maxymych kept in touch with Kenny Kotwitz and dreamt of having a second project, but with some differences. “I thought, since Kenny lives near Los Angeles, why not do a second album but with the great musicians who live out there, and have the group called the L.A. Jazz Quintet? This time Kenny picked the musicians since he knows them all, and I had him write all of the arrangements.” The accordionist remembers, “When I studied with Art, he would give me an arrangement each week, I would take it home, hand copy it, and analyze what was written for the instrumentation. Since they were doing a radio show five days a week for NBC, they had a lot of material. I knew that that was the style that Peter was looking for. And I knew that these musicians would fit easily into the sound.”
The relaxed and laid back music on When Lights Are Low emphasizes the blend between the instruments rather than individual heroics. The solos are brief (often just four or eight bars) and are a logical outgrowth of the melody. The arrangements have the lead often being passed between the accordion, vibes, guitar and bass and, despite the virtuosity of the players, a tasteful restraint is heard throughout the program with the musicians contributing to the memorable group sound.
“Some of the old Frank Sinatra records like Only The Lonely have the same mood throughout, so that was what we had in mind,” says Kenny. Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” sets the standard for what is to follow, with the accordionist “borrowing” the introduction from Neal Hefti’s “Lil Darlin.” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” is given a particularly beautiful treatment as a waltz with the five mu- sicians blending together so well that they seem to be thinking as one, playing with a common purpose. “Cry Me A River,” made famous by Julie London, has excellent statements by the lead voices but do not miss Berghofer’s interesting patterns behind the melody. The L.A. Jazz Quintet gives the classic bossa-nova “Estate” a unique sound and an infectious groove. “When Sunny Gets Blue” is interpreted as a quietly expressive and bluesy ballad. Berghofer’s bass is in the spotlight during the melody of “Crazy She Calls Me,” a song most notable for Billie Holiday’s version.
A particularly attractive treatment of “Darn That Dream” (reminiscent of both Art Van Damme and George Shearing) begins the set’s second half. On this song and “Stairway To The Stars” Kenny doubles on celeste, which in this setting sounds like an extension of the vibes. “Harlem Nocturne,” an early R & B hit, has a catchy countermelody played behind the haunting theme. The melody of “Manhattan” comes across as particularly lovable in this swinging version. As is true throughout the set, every note fits. Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” has been played thousands of times since its debut in the early 1930s but I doubt any version sounds like this one with its inventive melodic variations, not to mention the concise guitar, accordion and vibes solos. “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” has such a strong melody that it can largely play itself; the musicians wisely stick close to the theme. The introduction of “Stairway To The Stars” with Kenny’s celeste pointing upwards, is inspired, leading to a beautiful melody statement and inventive solos. The album concludes with a reprise of “When Lights Are Low.” Kenny says, “I wanted the album to go out like it came in, with an end-of-the-night feeling, so we performed this as a bit of a lullaby, saying goodnight.”
To the surprise of executive producer Peter Maxymych, When Lights Are Low was completed very close to the 100th anniversary of Art Van Damme’s birth (April 9, 2020). “I had no idea that it was Art Van Damme’s centennial, it is such a funny and yet fitting coincidence. I’m proud of how this project came out. It has a great selection of tunes, is easy to listen to, is quite subtle, and few if any other groups around today sound like this one. Hopefully this release will help revive both the jazz accordion and the timeless sound of Art Van Damme.”
Jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including Swing and Jazz On Record 1917-76