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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.

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