Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble

Watershed
Libra Records 204-028

Calling Signals 07

Live from Cafe Sting

Loose Toque LT 020

While the lowly accordion is probably the butt of more nasty jokes than any other instrument – Q: What’s the definition of a gentleman? A: Someone who can play the accordion but doesn’t – questing musicians are overcoming its square reputation to expose it in improvised music contexts. Plus not every one hears or plays it the same way.

On Live from Cafe Sting for instance, Norwegian Eivin One Pedersen uses his squeeze-box to take the chordal instrument’s role in a Jazz quartet otherwise consisting of veteran players: Stavanger’s Frode Gjerstad on clarinets and alto saxophone; London’s Nick Stephens on bass and Cape Town’s Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums. Watershed on the other hand features New York’s Andrea Parkins adding her accordion wizardry to traditional and original tunes reflecting Min-Yoh or traditional Japanese music. Considering that accordions are as prevalent in traditional Japanese music as djembes are Baroque compositions, Parkins’ keys and bellows add unique colors to the eight tracks here. One must also bear in mind that Watershed, made up of five Satoko Fujii compositions, is anything but authentic Japanese folk music. With the rest of the band consisting of Fujii’s piano, Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone, the sound also becomes close to try-anything American folk music.

For instance the quartet’s takes on “Takeda no Komoriuta” and “Soranbushi”, two folk melodies, pinpoints the approach. The latter appears to have a boogie-woogie piano intro, plunging gutbucket slurs from Hasselbring, accordion quivers and triplet-laden brassiness from Tamura. As Fujii’s pedal-pushed syncopation moves from one side of the keyboard to the other, the trumpeter flutter tongues and squeals as the trombonist’s tone remains moderato and legato. The ending harmonizes the brass and piano plus an accordion pulse that recaps the head.

As for “Takeda no Komoriuta” while plucks on the piano’s internal strings may sound as if they’re from a koto and narrowed horn breaths have sho-like qualities, the composition eventually opens up with lip-burbles from the brass players, swirling pulses from the accordionist and chromatic chording from Fujii. Theme variations are the trumpeter’s domain, accompanied by clipped piano keys, with the tune climaxing at a more decorous tempo as Fujii keeps clanking the keys.

With her gifts for sonic suppleness, Fujii, who also leads a couple of big bands and numerous other trios and quartets in Japan, the U.S. and Europe, manages to create lines that rest comfortably alongside authentic Min-Yoh tunes. Considering Hasselbring has multi-cultural playing experience with bands like the Jazz Passengers and the Slavic Soul Party, and Parkins gigs with everyone from saxophonist Ellery Eskelin to drummer Ches Smith, they also fit into the music admirably.

“Limestone Cave” for examples gets its nuances from Parkins ostinato pulses as Fujii stops and strums the piano strings as well as whacking them with a small mallet. Tamura adds pseudo-ethnic parlando which includes cries, yodels and swallowed syllables. Eventually his muted trumpet sighs harmonize with the trombonist’s pedal-point slurs and hammering piano chords. “Whitewater,” another Fujii original, implies that electronic-styled buzzing is emanating from the accordion, which otherwise advances near-onomatopoeic puttering and fluttering. Tamura contributes rubato brays, Hasselbring flutter tonguing and Fujii ringing note clusters. Before the carnival-like melody is recapped, the trumpeter squeezes out descriptive triplets and the accordionist, organ-like tremolos.

Tremolo pumps are a common strategy of Pedersen on the other CD as he makes a place for his instrument within Free Jazz. On the tracks at the end of the CD, the accordionist, who has also recorded with Gjerstad and vibist Kevin Norton, uses jittering allegro lines or doubled and tripled pulses to make his points. This kinetic approach is a necessity since the squeeze box sympathetically comps for Gjerstad’s irregular pressure and reed-biting multiphonics on “Rogaland”, as well as helping to contrapuntally shape “Trekkspill Blues”. The latter otherwise highlights the reedist’s slithering, squeaky, but somehow mellow clarinet trills, plus the bassist’s open-handed, staccato pacing and the drummer’s rubs and clavé shaking.

“Coming On The Bonkafjorden” is a four-part suite designed to in some ways approximate the severe weather conditions the drummer and bassist experienced during a boat trip on a Norwegian fjord. Putting aside any programmatic accuracy, the 34-minute group improvisation features enough liquid expended by the reedist and enough stressed sound waves from the rhythm instruments to approximate the journey. Throughout Pederson concentrates on sloshing and shuddering asides, usually expressed in quadruple counterpoint with the other players’ playing. Juddering squeezes from the accordion’s bellows and keys are highlighted alongside sluicing, altissimo clarinet vibrations, plunks and sul ponticello runs from the bassist and the drummer’s drags, rebounds and ruffs. Stephens’ sequence of strums, then staccato bow action re-orients the suite, with Pederson’s thrusts and sputters accompanying reed chirps to downshift the tempo to moderato; and an outpouring of cascading chords aids Moholo-Moholo in keeping the overall irregular vibrations glued to chromatic motions.

Two inventive ways of using the accordion in Free Music setting are demonstrated on these appealing CDs. It would be a shame though if the outstanding talents of these squeeze-box players and other bellow-shaking pioneers put an end to accordion jokes.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Coming On The Bonkafjorden Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 2. Rogaland 3. Trekkspill Blues

Personnel: Live: Frode Gjerstad (clarinets and alto saxophone); Eivin One Pedersen (accordion); Nick Stephens (bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums)

Track Listing: Watershed: 1.The Thaw 2. Whitewater 3.Takeda no Komoriuta 4.Soranbushi 5. Cascade 6. Limestone Cave 7. Hanagasa Ondo 8. Estuary

Personnel: Watershed: Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Curtis Hasselbring (trombone); Andrea Parkins (accordion) and Satoko Fujii (piano)