Putting the Accent on Christmas

VAN NUYS, CA – Joined by executive producer Dave Black and guest arrangers Elliot Deutsch, Gordon Goodwin, and Nan Schwartz, Accent member Andrew Kesler hosted ASMAC’s latest First Thursdays event on November 7 at Los Angeles Valley College to celebrate the release of Accent’s latest album, Christmas All the Way.

In Accent, six talented singer/arrangers and multi-track artists from around the world have combined their forces to form an a cappella group whose sound features a signature blend of classic jazz vocal harmonies and voicings (recalling The Hi-Lo’s, The Singers Unlimited, and Take 6) and modern, fresh arrangements infused with pop and R&B elements. The group comprises six young men from five different countries: Jean-Baptiste Craipeau, Tenor 1 (France); Simon Åkesson, Tenor 2 (Sweden); Danny Fong, Tenor 3 (Canada); Andrew Kesler, Tenor 4 (Canada); James Rose, Baritone (United Kingdom); and Evan Sanders, Bass (USA).

During the event at Los Angeles Valley College, Andrew Kesler discussed the genesis and development of Accent’s fourth album, Christmas All the Way – an ambitious project with a cappella, big band, string orchestra, and rhythm trio arrangements of songs ranging from familiar Christmas carols to jazz standards to an original song by Accent’s own James Rose.

Dave Black, the album’s executive producer, mentioned how, after meeting Kesler on the ASMAC board and hearing Accent for the first time, he was just “blown away” by the group. He sent a video of Accent to Patrick Williams, who met the group in 2016. Williams was so impressed by the group that he wanted to collaborate with them on an album. His passing, unfortunately, made that impossible – so Christmas All the Way is dedicated to him.

As Kesler explained, Accent’s latest album – which took nearly a year to produce – was quite an undertaking, coordinating vocal arrangements by Accent members with instrumental arrangements by some of the greatest arrangers in the business (Jorge Calandrelli, Elliot Deutsch, Gordon Goodwin, and Nan Schwartz) and recording them in three countries (France, Hungary, and the United States).

Through videos and score demonstrations, Kesler demonstrated how the arrangements and recordings came together. He explained the concept for his arrangement of “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” featuring creative reharmonizations and the talents of saxophonist George Shelby and percussionist Walter Rodriguez – and then played the recording, which attendees thoroughly enjoyed.

Elliot Deutsch, who contributed the instrumental arrangement for “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow,” was the first arranger Kesler approached for the album. Deutsch spoke about the challenges of creating an instrumental arrangement around a complex vocal arrangement (by Simon Åkesson). Attendees were then treated to the recording, featuring Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and soloist Arturo Sandoval, which proved that Deutsch was more than up to the challenge.

For the orchestral arrangement of “O Holy Night,” Kesler turned to veteran arranger Nan Schwartz. Schwartz and Kesler (along with Dave Black) spoke about the process of remotely monitoring and producing the recording by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. Accent member Jean-Baptiste Craipeau had written the vocal arrangement, which had to be adjusted to allow room for the strings. For the string orchestra arrangement, Schwartz created a dazzling introduction, bridge, and outro, also featuring the harp of ASMAC president Gayle Levant. As attendees marveled at the beauty of the recording, Schwartz quoted Johnny Mandel’s adage that, “I just write what I want to hear.”

Gordon Goodwin, whose arrangements and Big Phat Band were inspirations for the members of Accent, spoke about his fruitful collaboration with Accent member Simon Åkesson in creating the arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” According to Goodwin, arrangers are “used to making all of the decisions.” After Åkesson wrote the vocal arrangement, Goodwin wrote the instrumental arrangement for the Big Phat Band – but also suggested ideas for the vocal arrangement. The resulting recording was a big hit with the audience at Los Angeles Valley College.

After a short video introduction by Jorge Calandrelli, Kesler closed the evening by playing the recording of Calandrelli’s vocal and instrumental arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with strings recorded by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra and harp performed by Gayle Levant. On this track, Accent members, who usually create their own vocal arrangements, were honored to sing vocal lines scored by the six-time Grammy winner.