The seamless, beautifully lilting and subtly soulful accordion and vibes-driven ensemble date When Lights Are Low is nominally attributed to accordion vet Kenny Kotwitz & The LA Jazz Quintet – but the deeper story behind it could easily be dubbed “A celebratory tale of three accordionists.” If you’re a fan of the instrument, you’ll find the history – as chronicled in Scott Yanow’s illuminating liner notes – quite fascinating.
The inspiration for the project – which features lush, moody, melodically and harmonically engaging renditions of 12 Great American Songbook classics – is Art Van Damme (1920-2010), who recorded 42 albums as a leader and on over 100 as a sideman from 1950 to 2016. In 2013, accordionist and producer Peter Maxymych – a huge fan of the classic Van Damme Quintet, put together a group to re-create that sound for an album called The Montreal Sessions. That group featured Kotwitz, a onetime student of Van Damme who, among hundreds of all-star credits, recorded Art Van Damme and Friends with his idol in 1983.
Maxymych is Executive Producer of the new collection, which was created to mark the Centennial of Van Damme’s birth. Beyond those important historical connections, the perfectly titled When Lights Are Low is most remarkable for its sly, sensual and often whimsical interaction between Kotwitz, vibraphonist Nick Mancini and guitarist John Chiodini, who, prompted gently along by the rhythm section of Chuck Berghofer (upright bass) and Kendall Kay (drums/percussion), forge a true spirt of an interactive jazz ensemble less concerned with virtuosic flash than rich emotional substance. You’ve heard “Skylark,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Crazy She Calls Me” and “Cry Me a River” many times before, but never quite as intimately and lyrically as they are presented here.