Tribute: Accordéon Gavotte
Listening to the new (2008) Patrick Lefebvre recording, War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte), I am transported back about five years to my first Button Box sponsored Squeeze-In, in western Massachusetts. It’s after reasonable hours and the accordions and concertinas are still going. Wife is asleep with young ‘un, and I wander off, accordion in hand. In the dining room, I run into Andrew (of Vermont). He’s got a bottle of wine. We set to playing. Very shortly we stumble onto our small, mutual Breton repertoire. “Have you heard Accordeons-Gavotte,” he asks, “by Patrick Lefebvre?” And I had, but was stunned to be asked. Seriously, as amazing as it seems, one does not often get asked about Breton accordion virtuosi. Go figure.
What is so amazing about Patrick Lefebvre, and his tour de force recording, Accordéon Gavotte? Aside from his unrelenting vision (he’s playing solo accordion Breton dance tunes, and that’s what he’s doing) he does things that I’d never heard before. He varies the tempo, for instance, playing the melodies through slowly, expressively, before moving to dance tempo. Another technique is to add banks of chords to the playing as the tune progresses. By this I mean that Lefebvre will play through the tune with only two reeds sounding, then add a third bank in to increase the depth and emotion. This isn’t difficult, but you don’t hear it done that much. (Perceived as cheesy?) Lefebvre uses the technique to great effect. Building the drama, whipping us into a frenzy, piling the wet-tuned reeds one on top of the next.
Most impressive, though, is Lefebvre’s use of the left hand. His basses leave you shaking your head, “How did he do that?” Very interesting! Very inspiring! I had a conversation about this with a dance instructor. She found Lefebvre’s playing maddening. With the very interesting, very inspiring basses, she kept losing the one! How could you dance if you kept losing the one?!
One of the things I learned from Andy of Vermont was that one of the ways Lefebvre “did it” (i.e., played so fleetly with such amazing basses and chords) was that he played a chromatic accordion on many tracks, not a diatonic. It seems so obvious, now, but at the time I hadn’t noticed. At first I was a bit crestfallen. I was a bit of a diatonic purist, then — unlike now. (Hey!) But what is fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte isn’t the technique, or the fleetness, or the easy way with basses and chords. What is fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte is Lefebvre’s marshaling of these elements in a way that is traditional and intensely creative, simultaneously. He makes the melodies shine. His legato sections — intensely sad with fermata — may be the most tragic moments in all music. The shift to dance are equally joyous releases. What’s fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte is the endlessly rich stream of melodies. It’s sequel, War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte), is equally rich. You should get both. They will improve your quality of life.
UPDATE: Here is an excellent article introducing the music of Brittany.
UPDATE 2: You can get War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte) at iTunes and eMusic.