* * * * * * * * * *
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
KENNY KOTWITZ & THE LA JAZZ QUINTET – “WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW”- PM Records LLC
Kenny Kotwitz, accordion and celeste; John Chiodini, guitar(s); Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Chuck Berghofer, upright bass; Kendall Kay, drums/percussion.
This album of music is a centennial tribute to the Art Van Damme Quintet. Art was a trail blazer among jazz accordionists. He recorded 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman and boasted a 15-minute, NBC radio program that ran for 139 episodes (The Art Van Damme Show) back in the 1940s. One of Van Damme’s few students is accordionist, Kenny Kotwitz. Consequently, producer Peter Maxymych reached out to Kenny Kotwitz when he discovered him on YouTube.
“I needed the right accordion player for the project. I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on YouTube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this. After contacting him, I found that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme, so it all made perfect sense,” the producer explained.
Kenny Kotwitz picked the musicians he wanted to be in the LA Jazz Quintet and did all the arranging for this album. Kenny had fond memories of Art Van Damme.
“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 was the style Peter Maxymych was looking for and I knew that these L.A. master musicians would fit easily into that sound,” Kotwitz shared.
John Chiodini shines on “Estate” (that translates to ‘summer’), laying down a beautiful guitar introduction and amply supporting Kenny Kotwitz during his accordion spotlight. Nick Mancini adds his tenacious vibraphone work to the mix with Chuck Berghofer on double bass and drummer Kendall Kay locking the Latin rhythm tightly in place. This album is a testament to Van Damme’s unique, stylized accordion work and graces each listener with a bakers-dozen of familiar jazz standard songs, played in a sweet, moderate-tempo way. You’ll enjoy these Los Angeles music masters as they interpret “Skylark,” the sultry “Cry Me A River,” and the title tune, “When Lights Are Low,” along with many more you will recognize.
This is easy-listening music, lovely and relaxing, that features Kenny Kotwitz, a protégé of Van Damme, who became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles in 1966 and has gone on to become a master accordion player, a pianist, an arranger and competent composer. In 1983, he even recorded an album with his idol titled, “Art Van Damme and Friends.” With the completion of this project, Kenny Kotwitz imagines Art Van Damme smiling down at this project from heaven and enjoying it, the same way you will.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
DAVID SILLS DOUBLE GUITAR QUINTET – “NATURAL LINES” – Gut String Records
David Sills, tenor saxophone/alto flute; Mike Scott & Larry Koonse, guitars; Blake White, bass; Tim Pleasant, drums.
This is the 17th album release for reed player, David Sills. It features seven original compositions by Sills and tunes by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Davis, Alan Broadbent and two of Sills’ accompanists, guitarists Larry Koonse and Mike Scott. Opening with Scott’s “Minor Monk,” this group swings hard and the catchy melody repeats in your head. This is the sign of a well-written composition. The Sills’ group has a tight, cohesive sound. When David Sills comes to the forefront on his horn, his mellow tone lights up the musical stage. I played this song twice before moving on. You rarely hear a quintet that utilizes two guitars, but it works! David Sills explained:
“In recent years, most of my performances have taken place in venues in which no piano was available, so to fill the role of the missing piano, I began adding a second guitar. This instrumentation seemed to open up many musical possibilities and allowed for an interesting mix of sonic colors. Thus, the idea for this recording, featuring a double guitar quintet, was born.”
Certainly, it helps to use some of the best players in Southern California like Larry Koonse and Mike Scott, who is a founding member of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective. Together, Scott and Koonse create a rich, beautiful rhythm section, along with Tim Pleasant on drums and Blake White on bass. They become a cohesive palate where Sills can paint his silky, smooth tenor saxophone sound. “Sonny’s Side” is a David Sill original composition and it’s another swinging arrangement. I wondered if it was a tribute to Sonny Rollins. When reading the publicist’s promo package, I discovered it actually was. Tim Pleasant colors the music on his trap drums and holds the swing time in perfect place. Half way through, the ensemble give’s Pleasant a time to shine on an impressive drum solo. Blake White, on double bass, locks in with Pleasant and the groove is impeccable.
On the Alan Broadbent tune, “Quiet Is the Star” Sills picks up his alto flute and serenades us. David Sills stays busy as a recording and performing woodwind player, as a composer and an educator. He puts out albums every other year, tours the United States, Europe and Asia as a bandleader and still finds time to perform with David Benoit, The Acoustic Jazz Quartet, the Line Up and the Liam Sillery Quintet. His current project, “Natural Lines” is a whole new adventure, for the first time featuring his double guitar quintet and offering us a dozen well-played songs for our listening pleasure.
* * * * * * * * * * *
MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records
Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.
Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies. Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music. The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.” The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:
“You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall. You stand again and try and then, you walk. You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk. You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last. You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love? Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”
Those poignant lyrics drive this project. These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.” I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl. Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes. His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery. They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades. The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.”
Mon David is multi-talented. He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums. He explained his decision to record a duo album.
“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second. That’s why I wanted to work with Josh. His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality. He’s also very spontaneous. He listens so closely. I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot. That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement. It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”
There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball. His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention. He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production. He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.” This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.
* * * * * * * * * * *
THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC –“EMERGENCY EXIT” – Wide Hive Records
Matt Montgomery, bass/guitar/piano/songwriting; Gregory Howe, guitar/bass/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ songwriter; Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ/synthesizer.
On Track 6, “Innerspatial Search” this group finally gets my attention. Until then, the compositions were a little lack-luster for my taste. They featured too much repetition in the rhythm section, almost like Rock and Roll tracks that are being prepared for some amazing soloist to come in and overdub on top of. Indeed, that is what Kamasi Washington does throughout on his tenor saxophone, as well as Erik Jekabson on his triumphant trumpet. On track 7, “Rattle Thicket” the group is invigorated with rhythm and they sound very much like a rock band jam session. It’s a brief composition (2-minutes 18-seconds) but its fearless and thunders on the scene with exciting energy. “Art of the Warrior” is more smooth jazz, but as the arrangement unfolds, this song blossoms with increased energy and presence. This
group leans heavily towards rock music with jazz overtones. Sometimes it’s very Grunge-like. Montgomery and Howe are the composers of this music, except Kamasi’s composition, that happened to be the song that finally captured my full attention (Innerspatial Search). The multi-talented Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe each play numerous instruments, as well as being the songwriters on this project. The resultant material is comprised of productions that have been sitting on the studio shelf from 2001 through 2014. They showcase a young, music-hungry Kamasi Washington, striving to express himself and grow his music. The group seeds of creativity are obvious on this recording, as these musicians plant their feet solidly to express themselves. They have included the past nine recording years, in both the Wide Hive and Fantasy studios, where they created this project. Consequently, it becomes a compilation and history of Throttle Elevator Music’s journey into 2020.