There's an old joke about jazz musician's hell that goes something like this - An old jazzer finally turns up his toes and soon finds himself in a long queue at the entrance to hell. Up ahead of him he recognises a whole bunch of guys that he's played with at on time or another who have shuffled off the mortal coil in recent years. He taps the shoulder of the guy in front of him and says "Hey man, do we get instruments in there?" "Yeah," replies the guy. "We even get a choice - banjo or accordion".
Like many musicians I had always hated both instruments. With hindsight I realise that there is something about banjos and accordions that tends to attract the efforts of some profoundly unmusical people - far more so than with almost any other instrument. It wasn't until I first heard the music of Sivuca in the case of the accordion and Bela Fleck in the case of the banjo, that I began to revise my prejudice. I'm still not a huge fan of the banjo although I do recognise that there are some fine musicians out there for whom it is the instrument of choice, but the accordion has risen greatly in my affections.
I first heard an album by Sivuca in the early seventies, when I was managing a record shop in West London. It was a Vanguard album, long since deleted, simply called 'Sivuca'. The cover picture, as I remember it, was of a short, stocky, white haired, white bearded man playing a nylon string guitar outdoors against a backdrop of hills. I was intrigued and so put it on the turntable for a listen. I was completely blown away by it, despite the fact that it soon became apparent that Sivuca's principal instrument was not the guitar but the accordion (or, strictly speaking, its Brazilian equivalent, the Sanfona). I no longer have that album as I literally played it to death! The surface of the disc actually turned white over the years and it became unlistenable to. I had, of course, made a cassette copy of the album but that finally died about five years ago, when the tape stretched beyond playability.
That album turned me on to two things and confirmed a third: I recognised the potential of the accordion for the first time, I became obsessed with the triangle (more of this anon) and I realised that whenever I heard Brazilian music I tended to like it (and more of this anon as well). I began to search for recordings by Sivuca, although mostly without much luck. He featured on a fine album by Dom Um Romão called 'Hotmosphere', and cropped up on the Paul Simon album "Still Crazy after All These Years" as the featured soloist on "I Do It For Your Love", but it was not until I went Brazil for the first time that I was able to seriously expand my collection of his work.
In the meantime, the next accordion revelation was Jack Emblow. By the early 80's I was running a jazz club. I had a resident trio and would book a different soloist every week. The bass chair was shared by the late John McCartney, John Rees Jones (until very recently Humphrey Lytletton's bassist) and Peter Morgan (a fine player who has disappeared off my radar, and whom I would love to catch up with again). Pete was always suggesting soloists to me and one day persuaded me to book the duo of Jack Emblow and trumpeter / flugelhornist Johny McLevey. All I knew about Emblow (or Jack Elbow as he was known in the trade) was that for years he had provided the accompaniment for The Cliff Adams Singers on BBC Radio's horrendous 'Sing Something Simple' programme. As you can imagine, I took a hell of a lot of persuading over that one. Needless to say, the gig itself was a revelation to me and I continued to book Jack on a regular basis until the club closed a few years later. He subsequently became a regular member of Martin Taylor's 'Spirit of Django' group for many years. These days I believe he is in semi-retirement but still doing the odd gig here and there, although I did find this clip of him playing with another regular at my jazz club - Harry Pitch -when I was trawling the internet. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt2kGY3lmSE
In recent years I have been introduced to the music of the great French / Italian accordionist Richard Galliano, Marc Berthoumieux (another French wizard) and a whole host of Brazilians, most notably Toninho Ferraguti, who I was lucky enough to meet in Brazil last year. You can find examples of all of these on Youtube:-
So - I rest my case for the accordion - and I haven't even touched on the concertina or the Melodeon as yet. Tomorrow maybe...
(My apologies for stealing the title of Annie Proulx's excellent novel for this piece.)