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Student Spotlight: Greg Hicks on How Max Raabe’s Tailored Tuxes Will Open Your Mind

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Photo: Max Raabe rides his bicycle. He performs with his Palast Orchester on April 9, 2015 at Hill Auditorium. Photo by Marcus Hoehn.

Max Raabe and Palast Orchester are a well-groomed lot, both musically and visually — trained at the Berlin University of the Arts, tux-friendly, hair parted to one side — and that very sense of aesthetic perfection is what makes Raabe and company so unpredictable. While every tux is tailored to perfection and every stray hair is combed into place, Raabe’s creative persona throws the experience of the performance off-kilter in the best way.

The Raabe method of approach is to give a taste of vintage formality to a situation that might not­ require it. Past examples from Raabe include (but are not limited to):

  • Using a condenser microphone to sing a live cover of Britney Spears’s “Oops…I Did It Again.”
  • Wearing a tux while singing a cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
  • Singing the 1930s hit “Dream a Little Dream” at music festivals.

Take a walk through Max Raabe and Palast Orchester’s photo gallery and you’ll get the same impression. You’re greeted with a photo of Raabe riding a bike — no-handed — through a city road whilst wearing his classic tuxedo, giving a casual grin to the photographer.

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester
The Palast Orchester. Photo by Marcus Hoehn.

As you continue your photo exploration, you’ll find Raabe and the eleven other members of the Palast Orchester crammed into a paddleboat, instruments in hand, dressed in tuxes, casually floating along the lake. In further shots, Raabe is photographed mostly-submerged in the lake, head popping out, staring directly into the camera — still dressed in his tux. Oh, and there’s also a duck floating past him.

Why the constant throw-back attire, Mr. Raabe?

For one thing, cherry picking visual styles all the way back to the 1920s establishes an image to “not look the type” to perform contemporary music brands — allowing Raabe to shock and surprise audiences with well-orchestrated versions of relatively modern radio hits like “Oops…I Did It Again” and “We Will Rock You.” And Raabe isn’t the only notable artist to visually belong to one era of music while successfully surprising listeners with renditions of another.

Last year, pop sensation Lady Gaga showcased a similar visual deception — though in her case, pop aesthetic combined with jazz standards. Unlike Raabe, Gaga often exemplifies the most contemporary, dynamic image in her style, and on her latest record Cheek to Cheek, Gaga  melded this persona into a record consisting of classic jazz hits sung with jazz icon Tony Bennett.

World-wide pop-rock sensation Robbie Williams (who often displays a “bad boy” stylistic persona) used a similar technique on his unexpected 2001 jazz standard cover album Swing When You’re Winning and again in 2013 with Swings Both Ways.

Pop diva Christina Aguilera went so far as to release an album of entirely original tracks in throwback production style on Back to Basics. Aguilera, Williams, and Gaga were all heavily praised for their surprising capabilities to sing in these unexpected genres.

And here on the flip side, we have Max Raabe, who takes a vintage image and displays his capabilities in the realm of popular music.

The visual foundation of the German old-style group is something that, upfront, audiences might take very seriously, given the formal vintage look. But upon observing the group’s surprising photoshoots and song cover choices, a new open-mindedness with a taste for the abstract and a quirky sense of humor might unfold.

When Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester performed previously in Ann Arbor, UMS gave fans the opportunity to sample their own vintage attire in an in-venue photo booth, and the same is encouraged this year. Come dressed in your best 1920s fashions, but don’t forget to bring your sense of humor as well!

Max Raabe and Palast Orchester perform at Hill Auditorium on April 9, 2015.

Interested in more? Explore even more audience photo booth photos from Max Raabe’s last appearance in Ann Arbor.

 

Resident Update: Writer Robert James Russell

Writer Robert James Russell is a UMS Artist in Residence this season. We’ve asked five artists from across disciplines to take “residence” at our performances and to share the work these performances inspire. Robert shares his experiences on dance, music, and his new novel below:

“When I applied for the UMS Artists-in-Residency program, my goal was to see performances and use that inspiration to craft a new novel. I’m beyond thrilled at the chance to experience wonderful performances and explore the role of music and dance in my work—both of which have always been crucial to my mental health, and to my ability to immerse myself in a project.

So far, I’ve seen the following UMS performances, all radically different from one another—and each has inspired me in vastly different ways:

  • Ryoji Ikeda (superposition)
  • Mariinsky Orchestra
  • Compagnie Marie Chouinard
  • eighth blackbird

See, this isn’t just writing a novel, coming up with a story and characters, but in this instance I am creating an entirely new place: a fictional island in Lake Superior, documenting the entire history of the island, of the people that lived (and, in the present of my novel, still live) there. Typically when I write I find some style of music that works for that story and I listen to the same record(s) over and over as I write, never growing tire of the repetition. In this instance, though, since it’s not just story, but history…and this immersion in different types of performances has been utterly liberating:

Writer Robert James Russell at work on his new novel.
Writer Robert James Russell at work on his new novel.
  • superposition taught me, even through the wondrous noise, about the use of silence in my work.
  • The Mariinsky Orchestra inspired me to embrace more bombastic/dramatic sections of the story.
  • Watching the Compagnie Marie Chouinard showed me how to re-think interactions of characters, how they meet in the story, but also how these characters interact with the island itself.
  • eighth blackbird encouraged me to embrace the unexpected—to travel different routes in the storytelling, in the creation of the island’s history, of its inhabitants, and to avoid the predictable…to really dig deep and do something unique.

Robert James RussellEach of these performances has taught me re-think what I know about art and inspiration, and they are with me every day when I write. In addition to a seemingly never-ending list of books I flip through daily—various back-issues of National Geographic featuring articles about Isle Royale (used as inspiration); a 1937 manual called Wolf and Coyote Trapping; the unbelievably inspiring/gorgeous Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky; others—I am constantly harkening back to each performance, remembering them, and making sure that they are not forgotten. And I am reminded with every word I put down how astonishing and remarkable the performing arts are…how important they are to the production of any art.”

——

Robert James Russell is the author of two upcoming books: the collection Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press, 2015) and the novel Mesilla (Dock Street Press, 2015). His first novel, Sea of Trees, was published in 2012. He is the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and @robhollywood.”

Interested in learning more? Read our interview with Robert.

Artist Interview: Petra Haden, violinist and vocalist

Petra Haden bu Steven Perilloux
Photo: Petra Haden. Photo by Steven Perilloux.

Violinist and vocalist Petra Haden has been a member of groups like The Decemberists and has contributed to recordings by Beck, Foo Fighters, and Weezer, among others. With her sisters, Petra is a member of the group the Haden Triplets and will also be familiar to UMS audiences as the daughter of the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden.

She performs as part of guitarist Bill Frisell’s When You Wish Upon a Star group on March 13, 2014 in Ann Arbor. The two have also created recordings together.

Greg Baise is the curator of public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. This summer, Greg spoke with Petra about working with Bill Frisell, growing up in a musical family, and her interest in the nooks and crannies of film scores.

Greg Baise: This particular UMS appearance actually encompasses two evenings and is called the Bill Frisell Americana Celebration. The first evening features Bill Frisell on guitar solo. And the second evening features you as part of When You Wish Upon a Star, a relatively new band.  Can you tell me more about the band and the material you’ll be working on for the concert?

Petra Haden: We’ll play from our record, the first record [Bill and I] did together. This record came to be after I played a show in Seattle with a friend of mine, and Bill came to see that show. He was interested in what I was doing, and he called me soon after to ask if we could do a record together. I was really excited to work with him because I’m such a huge fan! We decided to record a collection of our favorite songs, a variety of music from Coldplay to Stevie Wonder to Tom Waits. “When You Wish Upon a Star” was one of the songs we worked on, and our concerts together so far have been a mixture of these songs as well as Gershwin songs.

GB: In another interview you said that Bill gets your brain. What do you mean by that?

PH: It’s something that I can’t exactly put into words. It’s so hard to describe. When we play, it’s like this language that we speak together. It’s almost like he can predict where I’m going to go next. I remember hearing him when I was younger and thinking how beautiful it was, and to finally be recording with him is a dream come true.

When I was recording with Bill for my Petra Goes to the Movies album, one of the engineers told us that we seemed like brother and sister when we worked together. So, it’s also apparent to others that we’re a good match musically.

GB: I’d love to hear about the arrangement process. Do you and Bill work together to come up with arrangements for these songs?

PH: When we started working on our first record, Bill played and I sang the melody. When we were done with the basic tracks, I added violin. I just came up with stuff on the spot. I played what I heard in my head. I came up with the string ideas for songs that I’d heard, like the songs by Stevie Wonder, and also for songs like Elliott Smith’s “Satellite,” which I’d never heard before, but Bill had played for me. That’s another way he gets my brain. He told me that I had to hear this Elliott Smith song, and that became my new favorite song.  He gets my taste is in music.

GB: Listening to you as you create harmonies on the record is pretty astounding.  Does it come from something that you studied, or maybe from your upbringing in a musical family?

PH: I started singing with my sisters when we were really young, probably six or seven.  We used to visit my dad’s family in Springfield, Missouri. They had a radio show called “The Haden Family,” and we would sit in the living room and have fun, eat, and sing together. That’s one of the first experiences I had with singing harmonies. I remember knowing at a very young age that I loved singing harmonies, and as I grew up with my sisters, we sang just for fun.

I wasn’t really active in music in high school. But later, after I graduated, I joined a band called That Dog with my sister Rachel and another high school friend. I was involved with that band for five years. I ended up going to music school at Cal Arts (California Institute for the Arts), but just for a year, so I never really had formal music training. That’s why I tend to do everything from my head, which can be hard.

GB: Has your record with your sisters, The Haden Triplets, been in the making since your childhood?

PH: Ten years ago or so we worked with a friend who wrote a few songs for us, but we weren’t recording an album at that time—it was just for fun. Any show we played, we sang these songs, and we added [the American folk group] Carter Family songs that we’d known since we were kids. But we were all busy and didn’t pursue an album, though people often asked us when we might record.

Later, we were asked to perform at a tribute show for soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, and when percussionist Joachim Cooder found out that we were a part of it, he wanted to play drums with us.  He mentioned that his dad [the guitarist Ry Cooder] was interested too, so Ry played guitar with us for that show. He’s the one who called me after to say that he was interested in producing a Haden Triplets record. I was very  excited because I’m a big Ry Cooder fan. We recorded it at my sister Tanya’s house before she moved in. It’s an old, big house with tall ceilings, and it was empty, so it was a great place to record.

GB: Your most recent record is Petra Goes to the Movies.  I’d like to hear about your relationship to film scores in particular.

PH: I’ve always thought about doing an A Capella “Movies” album.  Since I was a kid I was obsessed with all the Superman movies. I had the vinyl for the soundtracks, and I listened to them a lot and sang the string parts in my head. That was my favorite thing about going to the movies, listening to the music. Music is what tells me the story whenever I watch a movie.

GB: In the album, you’re looking at the nooks and crannies of a soundtrack that people don’t normally look at.

PH: That’s interesting that you bring that up. Often in movies, the music that I wish was on the soundtrack doesn’t ends up on it. Like in Big Night for instance, there’s a scene that just touched me, during which the owner of the restaurant with which the brothers compete plays piano. I don’t think that’s even on the soundtrack.  My friend (who engineered the album) got the video and recorded it for me so that I could hear it.

Bill plays on that album too, so it’s not entirely A Capella. He thought of the theme from Tootsie, one of my favorite movies, and that’s another example of the way that he just gets my brain.

GB: Are you planning on recording another album with Bill and the When You Wish Upon a Star group that will play in Ann Arbor, or is that to be determined?

PH: That’s to be determined. I want to record with Bill for sure, but for my next record, I’m focusing on original songs. I work really well with collaborators, so I want to find the perfect writing partner.

GB: Earlier, we talked about the way you’ve admired Bill’s work for a long time. You said that to work with him is almost like a dream project.  Do you have a list of other dream projects, whether that’s material or collaboration?

PH: Lately, I’ve been listening to an album by Mark Isham called Vapor Drawings. I don’t know how to get in touch with him, but he’s someone I would want to work with. I would definitely love to work with [the composer] Steve Reich, to be one of his singers. His music is another way I learned to harmonize. I love that pulsating singing so much. My other favorite guitarist is Pat Metheny. I did have the chance to work with him when I worked on my dad’s record Rambling Boy. On that record, I sing on a song that Pat plays on, which was a dream come true.

GB: Thanks for taking the time to talk! I was really excited when I saw that you would be playing in with Bill Frisell.

Artist Interview: Flutist Tim Munro, eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird UMS Lobby Image

Eighth blackbird. Photo By Luke Ratray.

The Chicago-based ensemble eighth blackbird combines the finesse of a string quartet, the energy of a rock band, and the audacity of a storefront theater company in a dazzling performance coming to Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium Saturday, January 17, 2015.

Composer and UMS Lobby contributor Garrett Schumann chatted with eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro about the group’s unique instrumentation, theatrical flair, and magical moments onstage.

Garrett Schumann: What is eighth blackbird?

Tim Munro: Well, eighth blackbird is a chamber music ensemble specializing in music by living composers. One week we might play music that’s influenced by indie rock, the next music influenced by Balinese Gamelan, the next by an abstract piece of modern visual art.

We often memorize the music that we play, which allows us to take away stands and to have a greater intensity of communication on stage and with the audience. Sometimes that means we actually move around the stage to make manifest some of the relationships that are already inherent in the music. So a lot of the time we are trying to make this new composed music more immediately vibrant and engaging for audiences.

GS: Terrific. When you created the group in 1996 there had been ensembles with the same instrumentation as eighth blackbird for a few decades. How consciously did you guys see yourselves as emerging from that kind of ensemble tradition?

TM: To speak about the instrumentation first, eighth blackbird was sort of a put-together group. At the Oberlin conservatory, this conductor, Jim Weiss, put the group together to play more challenging repertoire, stuff that isn’t normally covered in the run of conservatory conductor. And this instrumentation seemed like the perfect kaleidoscope in everything. You have strings, you have winds, you have piano, you have percussion. You’re able to sound like you’re a string quartet, you’re able to sound like you’re a piano trio, you’re able to sound like a percussion ensemble, you’re able to sound like a full orchestra and there is just every combination possible in this instrumentation. This, I think, is why in the 20th century, it really exploded.

I think the biggest influence on eighth blackbird is an ensemble with a different instrumentation, which is the Kronos Quartet. It plays a hugely diverse range of material. Everything from the wildest, most experimental modernism to the kind of obvious, fun-loving minimalist to collaborations with popular artists and world music– and doing it in a way that made it visually engaging to audiences, but was casual enough that people could feel relaxed. So I think that was the biggest influence on eighth blackbird in its earliest stages.

GS: How do you come with this diversity of programming? What do you think it is about eighth blackbird that does that diversity so well?

TM: I think that’s something that we try very hard to represent in our programs not just because we want to check all the boxes, but because we want people to never feel bored, but to always have people engaged in a concert. The diversity of the programming just reflects the diversity of different proclivities within the ensemble. Each performer in eighth blackbird is part of the artistic direction of the collective. We are all music directors of eighth blackbird and we are all coming from very different places. We all have different music that we love and I think our programs are reflective of the enthusiasm of the group all together.

What unites all of the music that we play is something in it that is unique: a color that we haven’t heard, a particular approach to constructing a piece that we haven’t done before, a spark that inspires the piece that we haven’t encountered before… something that we can then play with theatrically. So each piece on the program in some way captures something that is unique even if they are in totally different worlds. Everything on the program gives us a little something atypical or strange.

GS: Composer and Northwestern professor Lee Hyla passed away suddenly in June 2014. What was your group’s relationship with Lee Hyla and his piece “Wave”? 

TM: Well, it was such a shock for everyone in the ensemble and for the whole music community in Chicago because he was such a huge presence. He’s an original. His music has a rawness and an unvarnished-ness that feels so appropriate and typical of someone of that sort of American maverick tradition. Every member of the group has a particular fondness for one of Lee’s pieces and we all loved his music. We don’t know him well personally, I don’t think anyone in the group knew him terribly well, but we are all such huge fans and were all so excited to be able to commission the piece.

I can tell you that already in rehearsing this we’ve discussed how the piece is put together. It’s a lot of fragments, it’s a piece that’s shards of things. Beautiful, pummeling, fractal, little elements that are all in shards, sort of constructed. And when we come to the moment of rehearsal where we don’t quite know our way forward, that’s often when we will talk directly with the composer. And so whenever that happens, we have that voice in the room, but we won’t be able to do that. So I’m not sure how it will affect our performance. It’s too soon for us to say.

Maybe because this is the only piece of his that we’ll ever be performing posthumously, there may be something different about the way that we and future groups approach it. It’s a piece that’s actually in its kaleidoscopic-ness begins with this vast, incredibly slow, incredibly astute music, and the last voice is the cello who has this upward gesture that almost feels like a question mark. I don’t know if one should put any emphasis on that, but for us, this performance asks us to think about those things.

Interested in learning more? Check out other interviews by Garrett Schumann.

UMS Playlist: A Touch of Minimalism

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by artists, UMS Staff, and community. Check out more music here.
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Dawn of Midi perform at Trinosophes in Detroit on January 31, 2015. Photo by Falkwyn de Goyeneche.

Minimalism can be extraordinarily beautiful. I’ve always been a believer of “less is more.” In the right hands, repetition, simplicity, and homogeneous textures of sound can envelop the listener in deeply meaningful and even spiritual ways.

In the playlist below, I’ve attempted to offer a sampling of minimalist techniques in a cross-section of genre and style, from pioneering tape experiments by Steve Reich (“It’s Gonna Rain,” ca. 1965) to minimalist 1990s electronica from the UK’s Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin) and the Manchester duo Autechre (selected from their seminal 1995 LP Tri Repetae) to Dawn of Midi, a group with a mesmerizing, “electro-acoustic” sound that will perform at Trinosophes on January 31, 2015.

I have also included some surprises: Jason Moran and The Bandwagon’s cover of American-born innovator Conlon Nancarrow (who composed “Study No. 6” for player piano) and downtown New York experimental post-disco songwriter, cellist, and composer Arthur Russell (who died in 1992 at the age of 40 in relative obscurity).

This playlist represents merely a snapshot of some of my favorite minimalist moments. Hopefully it will encourage and inspire a deeper personal journey of discovery.

Please note: These fascinating (and intricate) soundscapes are best experienced on headphones.

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

A [brief] UMS History Presentation: The Accordion

We can’t wait until accordions of all sorts take the stage for The Big Squeeze: An Accordion Festival.

In the meantime, study up with this infographic of a brief history of accordion, accordions around the world, and accordions in popular culture.

Are you an accordion admirer or an accordion player? Share your best accordion stories and family history below.

Listening Guide in Samples: Bob James

Bob James
Jazz keyboardist and composer Bob James is also one of the most sampled musicians in the history of hip-hop. He’ll perform in Ann Arbor on November 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Hip-hop appropriated the soul and rhythms of many genres of music and cultures, and hip-hop is contagious. It’s a force that blasted its way out of the inner city into bedrooms and basements everywhere.

Hip-hop is rooted in making something out of nothing, using the few tools at the musicians’ disposal to create art that paints a picture of a part of society largely ignored. Before hip-hop’s inception, jazz, blues, soul music, and rock-n-roll were the prior generations’ outlets for creating a rich counter-culture that would influence the communities of the future. Hip-hop was an explosive melting pot of all of these cultures, and so it wasn’t shocking that many of musicians who had begun to experience success in earlier decades enjoyed a new life through sampling in hip-hop. One such example is jazz pianist Bob James.

From One by Bob James:

In the 70s, James was arranging and producing with many fellow jazz artists, including on saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s classic albums, while also putting out his own solo albums like One or Two. These albums and his other music would become the foundation of many hip-hop staples of the 80s and 90s. The worlds Bob James would create during this time, while working with musicians such as saxophonist Dave Sanborn, singer Hubert Laws, and drummer Idris Muhammad, to name a few, were filled with a massive soul that mixed dreams of fantastical lands with the struggles of reality. The culture of hip-hop would reinvent that feeling in the following generations.

“Angela” by Bob James:

Bob James, who is an alumnus University of Michigan, would go on to success in the jazz world, but his music really entered American living rooms everywhere when he penned “Angela,” the theme music for the popular TV show Taxi that aired from 1978 to 1983 and spawned a slew of well-known actors and comedians. Later on, “Angela” would be sampled by Bay Area hip-hop group Souls Of Mischief for their song “Cab Fare”, which was slated for their 1995 full length album No Man’s Land but was unfortunately axed because they could not get the sample legally cleared (it’s out there now, go look for it!).

The works of Bob James have been sampled many times within hip-hop as well as by R&B and drum-n-bass artists, but there are two specific songs that have been used more than anything else and have lead to some well-known hip-hop records.

“Nautilus” by Bob James, sampled:

From the Bob James’ 1974 album One, the closing track titled “Nautilus” has given us great hip-hop songs over the years. As we enter the first few seconds of “Nautilus,” we hear the haunting sounds would be sampled by the legendary producer DJ Premier for Jeru The Damaja’s “My Mind Spray” from his 1994 album The Sun Rises In The East. Then, a few seconds later, right as the song really kicks in, is the sample that the Wu Tang Clan’s The RZA used for fellow group-mate Ghostface Killah’s “Daytona 500” from his 1996 solo album Ironman. “Nautilus” has been sampled in dozens of other songs including by Eric B. & Rakim (“Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em”) and Soul II Soul (“Jazzie’s Groove”), but it’s the segment about two-thirds into the composition, during another ghostly breakdown, that Run D.M.C. would pick up and turn into the main infectious sample for their renowned record “Beats to the Rhyme.”

“Take Me to the Mardi Gras” by Bob James, sampled:

While the sampling of “Nautilus” spawned many hip-hop tracks, James’s 1975 album Two and the song “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” resulted in some of the most legendary tracks. The bells and drum breaks from “Mardi Gras” would be most famously sampled by hip-hop legends like Run D.M.C. (“Peter Piper”), LL Cool J (“Rock The Bells”), and the Beastie Boys (“Hold It Now, Hit It”). “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” isn’t just the foundation for these celebrated songs, it’s also the backdrop for the sound of late 80s hip-hop culture. Those bells and drums from “Mardi Gras” create the vision of inner city kids break-dancing on the sidewalks, spitting rhymes on the corner, or tagging graffiti on a wall downtown.

Bob James has continued to produce and arrange music as a highly successful solo jazz artist and along with his legendary band Four Play, but his work from the 1970s as a producer, arranger, and as solo artist has left a lasting effect on in the hip-hop world, an effect that will continue for generations of emcees and producers to come.

Interested in learning more? Check out Kelly Frazier’s listening guide to pianist Ahmad Jahmal, who’s also been sampled into the hearts of hip-hop.

 

Artist Spotlight: Why We Love Accordion, and You Should, Too

Editor’s note: UMS presents The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music of all sorts, at Hill Auditorium on November 1, 2014. Accordionist Julien Labro is not only part of the program but also a co-curator for the event. Read about what he loves about the accordion (and why you should too!) below.

Accordion close up
Photo: Up close with one of the Accordion Virtuosi of Russia, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music in Hill Auditorium. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether it is a boozy uncle insisting on playing it at family parties, or the distant nerdy cousin secluded in his bedroom, or a friend-of-a-friend, most of you know someone who has played the accordion. Yes, you read that right!

Indeed the theory of six degrees of separation will link you with the widely popular and multi-cultural accordion.

The accordion has always been a huge part of popular culture and is frequently the centerpiece of the folk music of that ethnicity. Whether you are Irish, French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Colombian, Brazilian, Argentinean, Dominican, Mexican, Jewish, Egyptian, Algerian, Lebanese, Persian, Indian, or Chinese, the accordion and its relative instruments dominate the musical landscape of that traditional music.

That’s why we’re so excited about The Big Squeeze, an evening during which we’ll explore the versatility of the accordion by travelling through different musical styles and genres representing various countries.

An extensive array of diverse accordions and their relatives will appear throughout the performance: the piano accordion, the bayan, the chromatic button accordion, the bandoneón, the accordina, the diatonic accordion, and the Anglo-concertina.

Accordion: A Brief History


Alexander Sevastian, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, plays Bach.

All of these instruments function under the same sonic principle: an airflow streaming across a free vibrating reed that resonates a tone based on its length. The first instrument known to have used this principle can be traced back to 3000 BCE in China with the scheng, an instrument made out of bamboo pipes set in a small wind-chamber into which a musician blows through a mouthpiece. Suspected to have journeyed to Europe during the 13th century, the scheng hardly faced any major adaptations until the Industrial Revolution. A closer predecessor of the modern accordion is arguably credited to Cyrill Damian, an Austrian instrument maker who patented the name in 1829. Naturally, the instrument wasn’t as developed as the ones you’ll hear at The Big Squeeze, but offered the general concept of the bellows sandwiched between two manuals.

At the turn of the 20th century, accordion manufacturers realized the extensive presence of the piano in American homes and salons. Consequently, they decided to seduce and target piano players with the accordion by offering piano keys in lieu of the traditional buttons on either side. Its convenient portability and comparative affordability contributed a great deal to its commercial success, which is the reason why the majority of the population familiar with the accordion recognizes it with a piano keyboard on its right side. However, the rest of the world adopted the initial concept of an all-button instrument as the primary blueprint for the accordion.

The Big Squeeze: An Accordion for Every Taste

In Russia, the bayan, a high-tech button accordion, became one of the centerpieces of traditional folk music. Its gigantic typewriter appearance allows for limitless technical dexterity and its distinctive sound emulates that of a pipe organ. The Accordion Virtuosi of Russia will perform exquisite arrangements of popular Russian folk songs and some staples of classical music that will feature both piano accordions and bayans. Alexander Sevastian, who also hails from Russia, will demonstrate some of the finest technical dexterity and subtleties performed on bayan.


Julien Labro performs with Spektral Quartet

Similar to the bayan in shape and size, I will perform on the chromatic button accordion, whose concept is close to its Russian relative, but its keyboard layout and timbre very different. The chromatic button accordion is the most popular type of accordion found in Europe. Also European in its conception, I will introduce you to a German instrument conceived to replace pipe organs in underprivileged parishes, the bandoneón. Invented and named after Heinrich Band, the bandoneón is much smaller in shape than its cousin, the accordion. Although the principle of the vibrating free reed remains, you will notice a deeper, more mournful, and melancholic sound produced by this instrument. These sonic qualities staged the instrument to become the soul of the Argentinean popular music: the tango.

Additionally, I will present the accordina, which could be described as a hybrid between a harmonica and a chromatic button accordion. The accordina, invented by André Borel, can be traced back to the early 1930s in France; it borrows its free reeds and its button keyboard from the chromatic button accordion and inherits the harmonica’s breathy quality which it expresses through a mouthpiece.

John Williams will transport us to Ireland and remind us that we don’t need to be waiting for March 17 to sip a room-temperature Guinness. He’ll perform on two different types of accordion that are primary instruments found in Irish traditional music: the diatonic accordion and the Anglo-concertina. The diatonic accordion is small and offers two or three rows of buttons. Each row is tuned to a specific tonality and only offers notes that belong to that tonal center. Most of the diatonic instruments are generally in only one or two keys, so players tend to own several instruments in order to perform throughout all key signatures. It is also interesting to note that each button on these types of instruments produce different pitches according to the bellows’ direction. Hexagonally shaped, the Anglo-concertina is one of the smallest members of the accordion family. Like the diatonic accordion, one single button offers two notes depending on the bellowing. Its timbre is unlike any of its relatives, more nasal and enigmatic; it fits dreamily in some of the classic Irish ballads.

On behalf of the entire UMS team, I sincerely hope that you join us for this program which reveals some of the existing types of diverse accordions found throughout various musical styles and cultures. Hopefully the evening’s program will shed light on some of the musical versatility that the instrument has to offer beyond what you may have experienced from the boozy uncle and the distant, nerdy, secluded cousin.

And if by time you read this, you haven’t found six degrees of separation between you and someone you know who has played the accordion, a simple Facebook “friend request” to any one of us will do the trick.

Interested in more? We asked Julien Labro what he’s been listening to lately. Listen along to his playlist.

Behind the Scenes with Accordionist Julien Labro

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by artists, UMS Staff, and community. Check out more music here.
Julien Labro
Accordionist Julien Labro performs alongside with other artists as part of Big Squeeze: An Accordion Summit on November 1, 2014 in Hill Auditorium. Photo by Anna Webber.

Accordion virtuoso Julien Labro (of Hot Club of Detroit) performs with Chicago-based contemporary classical Spektral Quartet, the Accordion Virtuosi of Russia, the Irish Duo, and accordionist Alexander Sevastian as part of the Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music on November 1, 2014 at Hill Auditorium.

We asked Julien to share a few of his favorite tunes with us, and to tell us a bit about what he loves about them. Check out his selections and listen along below.

1. Jeff Ballard Trio with Lionel Loueke & Miguel Zenón – “Beat Street” from Time’s Tales
Three of my favorite musicians getting together. Love the vibe and instrumentation, and the different musical directions achieved. Check out “Hanging Tree” from the same album for a total different vibe from the track I selected.

2. John Coates Jr. – “Yesterday” from The Jazz Piano of John Coates, Jr.
Just found out about this pianist a few days ago. Keith Jarrett played drums in Coates’s piano trio for some time, so it’s interesting to hear some of Keith Jarrett’s early musical inspiration.

3. Stromae – “Formidable” from Racine Carrée
I discovered this Belgian artist while watching a French talk show some time ago and was very impressed with his performance and demeanor. It’s currently back in my rotation, especially this track which is the one I heard that day.

4. Jimmy Smith – “Cat in a Tree” from Peter & the Wolf And the Incredible Jimmy Smith
I’ve always been a fan of Jimmy Smith, and this song features him with the Oliver Nelson’s big band. They collaborated on a handful of albums but the choice of material is a bit different from their previous work since the album based on the themes from Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf.

5. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Lift Off” from Watch The Throne
I listen to all sorts of music and hip-hop is no exception. The whole album is awesome, and this particular track may be more “poppish” than hip-hop, perhaps due to Beyoncé’s presence. Regardless of what we want to label it stylistically, I really dig the hook and the track.

6. Now vs Now – “Future Favela” from Earth Analog
I’ve been into this band for a couple years now. Jason Lindner is an awesome pianist and keyboardist, super creative, and Mark Guiliana is also one my favorite drummers.

7. Charlie Haden – “Song For Che” from Liberation Music Orchestra
Charlie Haden, a jazz giant, has left us recently, so I’m listening to some of my favorite albums, like this one, as well as unfamiliar ones as a personal homage to this bass legend. I love this entire album and this Haden’s composition always resonated with me.

8. Jack Bruce – “Sam Enchanted Dick Medley” from Things We Like
Just got hipped to this reissue. This is Jack Bruce (Cream’s bass player) playing upright bass in a somewhat free jazz setting. Very interesting and cool album, noteworthy is the presence of young guitarist John McLaughlin playing here right before joining Tony Williams’ band Lifetime.

9. Clark Terry – “Brother Terry” from Color Changes
Listened to this for the first time a couple weeks ago while in Lebanon riding in the car with the trumpet player from the Lebanese Philharmonic. I flipped out about how good and fresh this was despite being recorded in 1960, the arrangements and instrumentation and playing sound so hip, amazing! It also reaffirmed for me that good music is timeless and appreciated all across the world.

10. Chico Buarque – “Funeral de um Lavrador” from Per un Pugno di Samba
Big fan of Brazilian music and of course of the great singer songwriter Chico Buarque. This is a great album recorded in 1970 and arranged by Ennio Morricone!

11. Maurice Ravel – Second Movement (Assez vif. Très rythmé) of String Quartet in F Major
I always like to explore composers that I know well time and time again because there are always new things to discover and intricate details  I’ve missed. I oftentimes arrange and write for strings, and I’m always in awe of Ravel’s chops as an orchestrator.

12. Hossein Alizadeh & Djivan Gaspariyan – “Mama” from Endless Vision
Just discovered Hossein Alizadeh through an Iranian friend, and I feel in love with his music. On this album, he’s joined by duduk master Djivan Gaspariyan. This music and this track in particular transports me to visual and emotional places…amazing!

13) Laura Mvula – “Father Father” from Sing to the Moon
Love her vocal chops and style. The live solo version of this song is even better than this studio cut….YouTube it, you won’t be disappointed I promise.

14) Richard Bona – “Dina Lam” from Munia
I first heard this song on Bobby McFerrin’s Live in Montreal DVD. Richard Bona, one of the guests stars, joins for a duo performance with snippets of this song, which also made me dig up this album.

15) Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band – “Ark.La.Tex” from Landmarks
I’m a big fan of Brian Blade. I’ve seen him perform in many musical settings and with many bandleaders (Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joshua Redman, Daniel Lanois to name a few). I enjoy his songwriting and I’ve always love his Fellowship Band especially since it’s musically different from the usual setting I get to hear him in.

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

A [brief] UMS History Presentation: The Guitar

As we get ready to welcome the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet to the Michigan Theater on April 10, 2014, we’re taking a look back to see just how far the guitar has come.

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