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.

The Mighty Corso

Me and my Hohner Corso.  Love.

Among the folks corrupted by my accordion influence are those who I’ve actually lent one of my older accordions to, either at my suggestion or their request, so that they might “give it a try.” The truth is, you can have your amazing hand-made Italian or French accordions, but the Hohner brand has brought more people to the bellows than could be counted. At this very moment, an unsuspecting colleague — a mandolin player, no less — is falling under the sway of the red pearloid, squeeze machine, a Hohner Corso, two-row G/C box that I lent him some months ago. This mirrors the way in which I got my hands on my first box, a Hohner Pokerwork, A/D, lent to me by the widow of a deceased accordionist.  Out of such beginnings …

The Corso was my primary box for years. A wet tuned French-sounding box, the Corso was perfect for the music I was learning: the bourrées, mazurkas, waltzes, and polkas of the Massif Central region of France.  Early on, I committed the arrogance of recording a CD with the Corso.  The cover photo, shot by my wife, Bethany, shows clearly just how besotted I was with that accordion.  God Lord!  I was a happy guy. The music on the CD pains me a bit.  I consider it to be a bit of a “trunk novel” situation.  But the vision in the music was solid. I was interested in playing French music in a simple, straight-forward way. Even back in 2002, I was aiming for Accordeonaire. On the CD, The instrument sounds great, and that’s what this post is about:  the Mighty Corso.

Aunt Lisle with accordion 1929 (?)
near Zurich

To give you an idea of the sound, here’s a recording. “Aunt Lisle’s An Dro” is actually a pair of An Dros (a traditional Breton dance), with the first being traditional, the second being a composition of my own in honor of my Great-Aunt Lisle, who played accordion (but not An Dros), or at least had her picture taken playing an accordion. 

UPDATE: Rikke van Ommeren in the “Polka Groove” post is playing a Hohner Corso — better than I ever have or will. I love my Salterelle, but the Corso was in no way an inferior box.

UPDATE II:  Here’s a picture of me playing it for students in my first year of teaching at Hall-Dale High School.  I was a hairy guy.