Those Darn Accordions

Mentioning the accordion to most people will likely conjure up images of heavy-set gentlemen in lederhosen, or an elderly Hungarian standing in front of a wall of bubbles.

There have also been plenty of jokes made at the accordion's expense (Q. What do a trial and an accordion have in common? A. There's a huge sigh of relief when the case is closed.) But there's more to the instrument than Lawrence Welk and "Roll Out The Barrel".

If you pay attention, you'll hear the accordion turning up just about everywhere. Popular bands and musicians like The Decemberists, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, Tom Waits, They Might Be Giants, and many others incorporate the accordion into their music. From the latest hits to commercial jingles and movie soundtracks, chances are you're hearing the accordion on a daily basis.

The accordion (and the related bandoneon, which is similar to the accordion but uses buttons instead of keys) has been a mainstay of folk music from just about every region of the world, from Europe and Scandinavia to South America. Whether it's Jewish klezmer, Mexican tejano, Lousiana cajun & zydeco, Argentinian tango, Irish reels, western swing or Italian tarantella (to name just a few), the accordion is an integral part of traditional music everywhere.

The much maligned squeezebox has even made inroads into classical music; master accordionist Richard Galliano recently released "Bach", a CD of J.S. Bach pieces arranged for the accordion. The instrument sounds right at home, and music originally written for the cello, piano and harpsichord sound as if Bach had actually written the music with the accordion in mind.

One of the most widely recorded bandoneon players was Astor Piazzolla, who turned the world of tango on its ear with his Nuevo Tango, introducing elements of jazz as well as new rhythms and modern harmonic concepts to create a dark, swirling, breath-taking new form of the traditional music. His CD "Zero Hour" is a classic of the genre.

Also from Argentina, bandoneon virtuoso Dino Saluzzi has released a series of beautiful recordings for ECM records since the '80s, combining traditional folk music from his childhood with influences from around the world. His recent recordings with Anja Lechner on cello are remarkable, with the CD "Ojos Negros" being selected as Downbeat's 'Album of the Year' in 2007.

A current favorite player of mine is Rob Burger, a San Francisco based musician who started out with the band Tin Hat Trio, and has gone on to record excellent solo albums and is in high demand in the New York downtown/avant-garde music scene. Check out Tin Hat Trio's "The Rodeo Eroded", in particular their version of the jazz standard "Willow Weep For Me" with Willie Nelson.

One of my favorite recordings is a Norwegian release called "Sommerbriesen", by Stian Carstensen, Arild Andersen and Frode Alnaes. A charming collection of traditional folk melodies performed on accordion, guitar and acoustic bass, this CD is as refreshing as the summer breeze of the albums title. Hard to find, but worth tracking down.

Click here for the inaugural podcast from The Caravan, featuring wonderful accordion music.