North American Jazz Alliance – The Montreal Sessions – Challenge CR73354, 63:29 [Distr. by Allegro] ***1/2:
(Kenny Kotwitz – accordion; Steve Hobbs – arrangements & vibraphone; Greg Clayton – guitar; Dave Laing – drums; Alec Walkington – bass; John Labelle – vocals)
Of all the Canadian cities, Montreal from the early 1920s, acquired a reputation as an open and exuberant place that was a haven for a rich night-life. Accordingly it not only attracted Americans who were suffering under prohibition, but became a hot-bed for the development of local jazz artists. It was also a magnet for many black American musicians who searched for escape from the discrimination they were suffering at home. For anyone who is looking for more detail on this era in Montreal, John Gilmore’s book Swinging In Paradise is a gem. This is a lengthy introduction to North American Jazz Alliance-The Montreal Sessions as a way to put into context the connection that jazz and the city have.
The NAJA does not harken back to the heyday of Montreal’s nightlife, but that of a more recent time frame, 1950s and ‘60s. In that period accordionist Art Van Damme led a quintet that had some cachet, if not fame. It’s not as if the accordion gained general acceptance as jazz instrument but it did have some prominent exponents such as Joe Mooney, Mat Matthews,Tommy Gumina and more recently Richard Galliano. However it could never truly escape its association with the polka. So it is not without some fortitude that producer Peter Maxymych decided to re-create the Van Damme sound but brought up to date by the NAJA.
The band is a mix of American and Canadian musicians and they are working from a set-list of readily recognizable popular tunes with the possible exception of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”. Offered in typical Argentinian tango style, accordionist Kotwitz leads the band through it’s paces in an easy fashion all the while remaining faithful to the underlying musical frame. The album opens however, with Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things,” which swings along nicely with the three main voices of accordion, guitar, and vibes providing impressive solos and towards the end of the tune guitarist Clayton and drummer Laing exchange eights.
Count Basie’s Band made the Neal Hefti composition “Cute” easily recognizable, and this group takes its invocation seriously to include the Basie rendition drum breaks in conjunction with the tune’s sprightly nature. John Labelle is a little known Montreal-based vocalist, and is featured on three tunes starting with “Close Your Eyes” then “Nobody Else But Me “ and finally “Dancing In The Dark”. He has a light but swinging timbre with an interpretation style along the lines of the previously mentioned Joe Mooney.
As for the remainder of the instrumental compositions, while all well executed and unabashedly attractive, they exhibit a sameness of style and interpretation. Regrettably, this a distraction from the well-intention purpose of the session.
TrackList: Just One Of Those Things; Close Your Eyes; Cute; Oblivion; Angel Eyes; Nobody Else But Me; Delilah; Charade; Dancing In The Dark; It Could Happen To You; Only Trust Your Heart; That’s All