Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Art Van Damme and Jo Stafford, 1957

Though the accordion may not be the first instrument one thinks about when considering jazz, Michigan-born Art Van Damme is definitely the first name that comes to mind when discussing the accordion in such a context. Born in the small town of Norway, MI, in 1920, Van Damme developed an outstanding technique and became one of the foremost innovators on the instrument. He began his professional career in the late 1930s by forming a trio that would eventually evolve into a quintet, and in that new setting, which included a rhythm section and vibes in addition to his accordion, he made several dozen albums between the '50s and the '80s. Although perhaps not remembered by many these days, Van Damme enjoyed a long career and was able to build quite a following in Japan and Europe, where he performed frequently, as some albums recorded live in Scandinavia prove. He lived in retirement in California for several years before his death, although he made occasional live appearances up until the end of his life. He passed away in 2010, leaving behind a rich legacy of recordings, many of which are fortunately available on CD.

In 1957, Van Damme and his quintet teamed up with Jo Stafford for an album of "some of the finest songs of recent years," as the liner notes announce. Released on Columbia, Once Over Lightly marks one of the few times the accordionist collaborated with a vocalist on record, although he'd backed up many a singer on radio by the time of these sessions. By the 1950s, Stafford was an established pop star, one of the best to come out of the Big Band Era. She'd risen to prominence as a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in the early '40s (both solo and as a member of the Pied Pipers) and was known for her perfect pitch, her jazzy approach, and her versatility. On this album, Stafford's voice blends perfectly with the elegant, classy sound of the quintet led by Van Damme, and the repertoire is made up of the kind of standards that she could handle effortlessly. From the opening track, "Almost Like Being in Love," it seems obvious that Stafford is extremely comfortable in this setting, and although there's room for short accordion, guitar, and vibes solos here and there, the spotlight is clearly on the vocalist. Accordingly, the arrangements vary between slow and medium (the tempos that suit Stafford best), as the singer turns out fine performances of "The Lady Is a Tramp," "A Foggy Day," "These Foolish Things," "But Not for Me," and "One for My Baby." Another standout is "Autumn Leaves," with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which, as the liner notes observe, is the newest song of the bunch. To delve deeper into Van Damme's very pleasant style, one should also seek out albums like Accordion a la Mode and A Perfect Match (on this one he's paired up with guitarist Johnny Smith), but this lesser-known collaboration with Stafford offers a good example of his sympathetic backing of a legendary pop/jazz singer.

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