Chris Wood: None the Wiser

This is the first time in 135 posts that I’ve written  about a subject that has absolutely no accordéon content at all, but I trust my readers will not accuse me of breaking our implicit contract or breaching some sort of squeezebox point of etiquette.

The fact of the matter is that Chris Wood has released a new recording, None the Wiser, and it has come to dominate my every waking moment. If you don’t know — and even if you do know — Wood is a highly regarded English folk musician and songwriter.  On the current recording he centers the groups sound around a sort of baritone urge (his wonderful voice), and the featured instruments are his guitar, upright bass, and hammond organ.  Yes, that’s what I said!  Wondrous!

I urge you to seek it out (it’s available on Bandcamp now). It will vastly increase the probability of your having a great day. It will improve your quality of life.

ASIDE: You may remember Andy Cutting talking about Chris Wood in this post a few weeks ago.

Here’s Chris talking about the new recording:

UPDATE:  Novelist Tom Brown wrote about None the Wiser, exploring the joys of instant Bandcamp access.  Read that here.

Andy Cutting Speaks About Chris Wood

This is the fifth piece in a series about Andy Cutting. Click through for parts one, two, and three … and also some pictures of his boxes.

The duets of Andy Cutting and Chris Wood are among the high points of English and European folk music. That’s not hyperbole. Cutting’s solo playing is a thing of beauty. The work with Blowzabella is a spectacle to be adored. The Cutting and Wood duets are something else.

Andy had this to say about the duet:

Chris and I first met at a late night session at Sidmouth Folk Festival the same year as the Riccardo Tesi workshop. At the end of the session Chris asked if I fancied meeting up the next day to play some more? We had a lovely few tunes on the beach the next day then he had to leave for a gig. A couple of months later he phoned me up to ask if I would play on his solo record. I of course said, “Yes.” He had recently returned from a trip to Canada where he had been taken around various house sessions by Lisa Ornstein. He was very interested in how English traditional music had traveled to Quebec and been changed by the different musical flavors there.
The night before the recording session he came to my house and we played the tunes he wanted to record with me. We played for about ten minutes and knew it would be good so we went to the pub. On the way to the studio the next day Chris said he was doing a couple of songs with Martin Carthy and would it be good if Martin played on our track as well? So, not a bad first recording experience!
From the first time we played together it just worked. It was like we had the same goal and because of this we didn’t have to discuss anything. We just played. That has never really changed. After the recording he suggested that we should play some more together as he had quite a few Quebecois tunes we could look at. So the Wood & Cutting duo was born. After a while we started looking at some of the French repertoire that I was playing. A couple of years later we played at a castle on a very cold and wet Sunday to virtually no one, so decided just to play English tunes. We played for four hours. It was so easy and felt so natural to play our own music after spending years trying to play other peoples music. So we had finally reached our goal. 

Andy Cutting Interview, Part Three

In the middle of our conversation in December, Andy Cutting went on a wander, performing here, teaching workshops there. I had asked him some questions about the partnerships of his career — especially Blowzabella and Chris Wood. At the end of February, the answers arrived.

Could you talk about Blowzabella? How did you encounter them, and then join?

Andy Cutting with Blowzabella

I knew of Blowzabella for several years before I really met them. Through seeing them at various English folk festivals. In fact before I played the box! When I started to play, I went to a box workshop run by Riccardo Tesi at Sidmouth folk festival. Paul James, [Blowzabella’s piper and sax guy], was helping Riccardo and they asked me to play a bit. I discovered some years later that on hearing me pay Riccardo turned to Paul and said “you need to get him in Blowzabella.” Dave Roberts, box player, had recently left and Dave Shepherd (the violin player) was leaving, so that meant they wanted someone to fill their shoes. Fortunately for me I was in the right place at the right time. They asked me to a few of their gigs and then I received a letter saying I was now in the band. 


This wasn’t your first time playing French and European music, was it?

As far as the European repertoire goes. I hadn’t really heard any until I was given a Castagnari catalogue which had photos of their range of instruments surrounded by LP’s made by people playing their instruments. I used these pictures to track down some of the records. Most notably Riccardo Tesi, Marc Perrone, and La Ciapa Rusa. It was just the catalyst I needed.
The Vanilla recording really made quite the impact, what elements do you think came together to make that such a vibrant piece of work?

When we recorded Vanilla the band had spent a year with the new line up, and we had played a lot of concerts so we were a really cohesive unit. Both socially and musically. Once in the studio we just got on and did the best we could. Recording the hurdy-gurdy (Nigel Eaton), bass/cittern (Ian Luff) and box live, then building the track up from that. It was a residential studio so we were all together with no real distractions. A very enjoyable time for me.
Could you talk about the vision of the group? The focused/multi-cultural, complex/simple, thoughtful/intuitive blend?

As a band. Blowzabella doesn’t really fit into any of the folk genres. We have always just ploughed our own furrow. The band started off playing bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy music from wherever they could find it. Since then we have written more and more of our own music so now it is almost entirely self composed English dance music. Well. Our hurdy-gurdy player (Gregory Jolivet) is French so he is having an influence on our repertoire now. Which is great. I like things to evolve.
With the recent work (Octomento), and work I’ve seen from you and Gregory Jolivet, it feels as if a kind of renaissance is happening for Blowzabella. Is that accurate? Or just wishful thinking on my part?

With Greg and Barnaby Stradling (bass) they have bought a new energy to us all. We are starting to play a bit more and are working on a new record. It is also our 35th anniversary this year. I suppose with all that there is more media interest and so people are being reminded that the band is still a going concern. If that’s a renaissance, then, yes I suppose that it whats happening.
Next:  The Andy Cutting/Chris Wood partnership.

Streaming L’Accordéon

Part 1: Getting to Rdio

So as not to bury the lede, I’ll just let you know that this story ends with me completely enamored with the Rdio service and the music it brings into my life. But it wasn’t a sure thing … Give a listen to this playlist while you read on!

https://rd.io/i/QWjoYzN9vhw

As someone whose aesthetic is devoted to an instrument founded in technology that was around before the Caesars — i.e., levers, valves, and bellows — it should surprise no one that I am rarely an early adopter of, to use a technical term, the “newly fangled.” I had to be counseled through the great CD conversion of the 1980s, and just five years ago, MP3s seemed like so much ephemeral cods-wattle to me.

I go through a process, I’ll admit. It resembles grief, in that there are stages. (ANGER: “F*&^ing music industry wants us to buy our music AGAIN in another format!  I don’t think so!”  DEPRESSION: “Oh, my beloved record collection … *sob* … vinyl … *weep* … beautiful covers … *salty tears* … wasted …”) But when I reach acceptance, I reach it completely, wondering how I had ever doubted in the first place. This is usually when my wife steps in and somehow signals that it’s time for me to get a grip already. It was my wife, for example, who bought me my first iPod, thus bringing my doctrinaire objections about the value of artifacts and “the authentic listening experience” to a deserved end.  Now that was cods-wattle.

So, in January my wife bought me a subscription to Rdio, a commercial music streaming service. Not something I had considered before. I had heard of Spotify and other such streaming services, of course, but I always asked myself, as Neil Postman suggests we do, “What is the problem for which this technology is the answer?” I could think of none. Subscribe to Spotify? Why would I do such a thing? You want me to pay for music that I wouldn’t then own??? What kind of IDIOT would do that???

I got the e-mail:  “You have subscribed to Rdio …”

What? At that point, I had never heard of Rdio (which, I later discovered, is pronounced in the pirate manner, “Ar-Dee-Oh”). Then I got the text from my wife, “I just subscribed you to Rdio …” My wife, as I have mentioned in the past, is a woman of marvelous virtue. She knows me, and she knows things. If she thought I should check out Rdio … hm.

Part 2: And What I Found There

What fresh new Hell is this? Ah … Wondrous!

In many genres, I have discovered, Rdio (and Spotify) present one with an unimaginable cornucopia of music. It’s stunning, and the price ($14.95 USD) is astounding when you consider the ridiculous availability, and the fact that suddenly, your shelves of CDs have shifted from being repositories of treasure to being sites of clutter and storage problems.

One of the first artists I looked up was Red Garland, a jazz pianist who I’m particularly fond of, and immediately I found The Complete Studio Recordings. Thank you very much. I think I will. Then I started looking for Baroque music — Bach, Handel, and all that — and sweet mother of God! One could listen their whole lives without exhausting the goodness there. How about the entire Topic Records catalogue, a cornerstone of BritTrad music? Yes, they do. What about … well, you get the idea. They had a lot of music in a lot of genres. They may not have had every specific thing I went looking for, but they had enough so that at any given moment in time I could find excellent music that would scratch whatever itch I had at that moment. Extraordinary.

But what about L’Accordéon? What about the tradFrench that runs through my free reed veins? Give a listen to the playlist!

An abundance! Perhaps I did not discover that long lost Marc Perrone recording I’ve been looking for — the one with “En Avant Blonde” — but I did find four others. I conducted a fairly thorough search and found a couple of La Chavannée recordings, some Patrick Bouffard. I did find some material that I had never seen before. Hurdy gurdy player Philippe Besson recorded on the Parsiparia label, and there was quite a bit of goodness there. Trio Safar, a fantastic group featuring accordéonaire Christian Maes, just one of the insanely virtuosic Belgians I found at the L’autre Distribution Rdio page. Chanson was well represented, from Edith Piaf to Emmanuelle Pariselle — very helpful and timely, since I’ve just been asked to play in a chanson tribute in Lewiston! And still, surprises arise!

Rather than run through the laundry list, I’ve put together a short playlist. I invite you to enjoy. It contains some new discoveries for me, but also some bog norm favorites. Patrick Bouffard’s “Valse A 5 Temps” is a staggering minute fifty-nine of music. “Nova,” from a compilation of Breton accordéonists, starts off in a suspiciously modern mode, but resolves to laride greatness. If I had included Irish accordéonists or more English players, the list would be very long.

I invite you to join me on Rdio. I am not a shill. This is not a paid advert.

“What,” I hear you say, “you can’t see paying for music and then not ‘owning’ it?” I would invite you to consider what the “ownership” of music means, and then have a conversation with Chief Seattle about what it means to own the land. I feel as if I’ve been given direct access to the greatest artistic achievements of mankind, and I intend to enjoy it.

Noël pour l’accordéoniste

Fa la la la la …

What does l’Accordéonaire want for Christmas?

Je suis content, usually, and I don’t spend a lot of time desiring things, and when I do, I make sure it’s an important thing that will improve my quality of life.  Something related to accordéons. But Christmas invites the question: what do you want, darling?  Here are four things that seem especially cool to me.

Vent de Galerne: I don’t know how it is that I don’t already have this CD, but I don’t. What I’ve heard is gobsmackingly beautiful. The latest endeavor by La beloved Chavannée is focused on a nautical theme. There’s a lot of synergy between Vent de Galerne and the river boat built by the clan last year. Free samples can be heard over on myspace (of all places), and the CD can be ordered from the Chavs themselves, here.

The Early Andy Cutting/Chris Wood recordings: more stuff I should already have, but they seem to be hard to find, especially on this side of the pond. The relatively few recordings I can get — Albion, Handmade Life, Andy’s eponymous recording, etc. — have become the soundtrack for this six month of my life. What an amazing thing that two such talents should have found each other in the world.

A Trip to France:  Yeah, well …

A Wesson Melodeon: I decided some months ago — probably just moments after playing my Nik for the first time — that my next box would be a one row in D. I’ve done a lot of looking, and have gotten my heart set on a box by Rees Wesson in Welshpool, Wales. My goal is to use it to play some of the French Canadian repertoire local to Maine, and to start dipping back into the reels and jigs (flashback to the tin whistle, Irish session days in Minnesota …) Actually, I’ve always loved Irish on the one-row (no, that’s not me). One-rows also have a tradition in East Anglian music, and, of course, in Cajun music. Here’s Rees playing the Bristol Hornpipe:

Oh, my.  That is a beautiful thing that would improve my quality of life.

All right, so I guess I’m not all that great at producing the list o’ stuff to buy, a la Oprah or Rachel Ray. Cross marketing? Not for me. One thing I’d like, no one can give me: time to make more music! What do you, dear reader, want for your accordion Christmas?

Maybe I’ll do better for New Year’s Resolutions … or Yom Kippur penance.

Gratitude at 40,000 Hits

In the United States, the fourth thursday of November is Thanksgiving. I love this holiday and love having the opportunity to express my gratitude for the extraordinary blessings in my life, many of which center on the accordéon, its music, and its masters.

  • Speaking of masters, first on the list would have be my wife, who has been generally and genuinely supporting of my accordéon efforts during the course of our marriage. Just as one example, she did NOT send back the Castagnari Nik when it arrived in the post last February, when I was at work. Instead, she sent a picture on my phone, and called me up so I could hear how it sounded.
  • Thanks to the folks who have willingly discussed with me things accordéon related, including Frédéric Paris, Sylvain Piron, Dave Mallinson, Alexandra Brown, and, most recently, Andy Cutting.
  • Thanks to the friends of this blog — whether they know it or not — who have been willing to discuss issues with me as I developed posts.  Some have actually written stuff that I’ve published here. Thank you, Andy of Vermont, Chris Ryall, Geoff Wooff, Owen Woods, Steve Mansfield, Chuck Boody, et many al. Tom McDonald — despite being a non-accordéonist — has been a real help just on the blogging and inspiration front.
  • Thanks to melodeon.net! Not enough to be said about that friendly, squeeze congregation’s influence on my quality of life! Just today, a quorum from that parish helped talk me off the ledge over a reed that seemed to be going sour.
  • Thanks to everyone involved in the collective effort to bring the “La Bourrée” tune book out, a huge important task! The folks at concertina.net really stepped up for this one.
  • Thanks to my kids — Max, Brigid, Emma, Julia, and Sarah — who somehow think that it’s cool that their old man plays obscure accordéon music. They continue showing up to my gigs.
  • Thanks to Amy and Rob, at the Water St. Cafe, in Gardiner, who have given me a place to play regularly in the past few months, so that I could get my chops into shape.
  • Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. Having just crossed the 40,000 hits line, I have no idea, really, who you all are (the occasional comment would go a long way!) … and I monetize the blog in only a very minor way … but this blog was started because I wanted to talk about accordéons with people who wanted to listen to me talk about accordéons.  Thank you.

Andy Cutting’s Boxes (Pics!)

Discussing his non-collection, Andy Cutting sent along pictures of some of his accordéons. Not pictured are any of the three Mory boxes, which are somewhat ubiquitous in Cutting’s photos.

One of the Maxes, the Pokerwork, the Mignon, and … what is that with
the stradella bass? Is that the Crimean thing from John Tam?

The Oakwood

I also asked Cutting about acquiring a D/G Castagnari Lilly “by accident.” He tells the following story:

I ordered a D/G Lilly for a friend. A few months later it arrived. My friend was delighted then a couple of weeks another one arrived. I couldn’t very well send it back so I kept it. I now lend it out to people who want to have a go at playing the the box.

This makes a bit more sense than the Lost Weekend I was envisioning — where you wake up with unexplained accordéons in your home — and reveals a not very surprising generosity of spirit!

Andy Cutting Interview Part 2: Gear Talk

Part One is Here.

Andy Cutting does NOT have an accordéon collection. Listening to Andy Cutting, one is entranced, of course, by his playing, but one also marvels — perhaps with a modicum of jealousy — at the sound of his instruments. I asked Cutting about his instruments. Is he a gear hound? Does he have a collection?

I wouldn’t say I was a gear hound at all. I’m primarily driven by playing music on a machine and have the instruments I feel I can best do that. I don’t really have a collection, as such. Although my wife would say otherwise! For those who are interested, the boxes I have are:


with the beloved Mory
  • Hohner Pokerwork D/G (my first box which I still play at home) 
  • Hohner one row four stop G 
  • Hohner Club 3 D/G 
  • One of those Chinese one rows
  • A small two row CBA thing that John Tams got in the Crimea when he was filming Sharp
  • Castagnari Mignon Gish, 
  • Two Castagnari Max, one in D and one in A
  • Castagnari Lilly D/G (bought by mistake!) 
  • Castagnari Handry 18 G/C
  • Oakwood (I’ve no idea what model. It was made for me), two row 21 button, 8 bass with stop for the thirds, G/C Bandoneon (octave) tuned, 
  • Two Castagnari Mory C/F and, finally, 
  • Castagnari Mory D/G (my most used and favorite box)

I also have on long term loan a Marcel Messervier Melodeon in D. So as I said, not really a collection.

How has he come by them? How did he first move beyond the Pokerwork?

I have over the years tried and played just about all the makes of boxes I’ve heard of. Some fabulous and a few dreadful. When I had been playing a few months I had the opportunity to play a Castagnari and it was just so much better than the Hohner I was playing. So after a lot of persuasive discussion and an approaching 18th birthday, I somehow convinced my parents that I needed a better box. We had been to Bromyard Folk Festival and I had been given a copy of the Castagnari catalogue by Rees Wesson (a fine one row maker). I sat down with my dad with a mind to get a Nik (two voice, two row, eight bass but with hand made reeds). My dad said that from all that I’d been saying, it sounded like I wanted something much more like … and he pointed to the Mory. I wasn’t going to say no, and so, with a bit of translation it was ordered. Several months later (!!) it arrived … and I hated it! It was so much bigger and heavier than my Pokerwork and I could barely reach the inside row of bass buttons, let alone the stops. I thought about it and knew that I would have to change the way I played. After a few days and a lot of work I totally fell in love with it.

Some items on that list are very intriguing! Two Maxes? Why two one rows? 

When I started playing with Chris Wood it was primarily to play some of the Quebecois repertoire. The only one row I had was in G and not super so I got the Max in D. Later I got the A one so that Chris could play in A. Fiddle players like A. Now I mostly use them in my Solo concerts and a bit with Martin Simpson.
With Chris Wood

And why is the Mory his favorite? Not that this is a hard question … why wouldn’t it be his favorite? But he’s got a Handry 18, G/C, the classic big box played by the likes of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, and other Samurai. Why isn’t the HANDRY his favorite?

I bought the Handry 18 about fifteen years ago. I really like it but it’s just not me. It is in many ways too capable and as I’ve said before, I love the limitations of the instrument. With the big box it feels a little like cheating. I know it’s not, but the challenges that box brings aren’t the ones I’m so interested in.

It’s interesting that the box is G/C and the rest are D/Gs. Switching between the two can be difficult for some (okay, me) as the center of the instrument seems to shift from the knee end of the box to the chin. What’s the method behind Cutting’s key choices?

I play in D/G tuning because that is where most of the music I play is pitched. It is the standard in England. I have always tried to play in both octaves. So, I’ve never thought the difference [between D/G and G/C] too great. When teaching in England I try to get people playing in the top octave and when in Europe I get them to play in the bottom. It’s great practice and after a while you stop going eeak, the fingerings different! and just get on with it. 

Most people I work with are amazingly accommodating. I got the C/F box so it was easier to play in D & G minor with the pipes and hurdy-gurdy. If someone wants me to play and it’s in a daft key for the box. All it usually takes is a bit of explanation and nine times out of ten they’ll shift the key.  The singers I work with have mostly been more than happy to move key’s. 

In general, what does Cutting look for in an accordéon?

When trying out boxes it has to have a great action, an even tone across both ends and most importantly for me, have a very good response from very quiet to reasonably loud. I’m not into the bullworker melodeon, loudest is right thing at all. Volume is easy. Subtlety is not. But that of course depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

For me Castagnari seem to fit the way I play, or rather, I have learnt to play the way they work, better than any other make I’ve tried. That is just my personal taste. I would like a Melodie box and would dearly love to try a Bergflodt.

And, as an aside, what about the electronics?

For miking up the box I use an Audio Technica ATM 350 pro and for the left had I use the element off a PZM (Pressure Zone Mic) made by Realistic (or rather, no longer made by Realistic) mounted on the outside of the base plate with the mic looking through a sound hole. This is wired internally to a jack socket. Of the many mic systems I’ve tried this works best for me.

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