At least once every Schatzy performance, Greg Schatz jumps off the stage and makes his way through the crowd. But even as he leaves the bandstand, he takes the music with him. Schatz fronts the band that bears his name, and as he winds through the club he pushes and pulls on the bellows of his instrument, sending air over the reeds and music between the people who fill the room and the street outside. The sound is seductive, but with a pulse—something like a piano crossed with a horn, only this piano has feet.
“The accordion is affordable, portable and loud,” says Schatz, who recently released a new album, Nocturnal Wild Life Journal. These qualities, along with the raw appeal of its distinctive sound, are what originally popularized the accordion in Europe in the 1800s. Germany, Italy and France all fell in love with the accordion, and New Orleans’ present music scene reflects these old-world sounds as well as those born from the accordion’s crossing over the Atlantic. When any of New Orleans’ many accordionists straps on this free reed instrument, he or she brings the vaudeville to the performance and the parade inside the bar.
Common belief has it that the accordion made its way to Louisiana in the hands of the German immigrants who flooded here in the mid-1800s. The accordion traveled well on ships and its operator could serve as a one-man band. John Roger, who builds button accordions in Meraux, Louisiana put it this way: “You can play it acoustically and still hear it. You can play it by itself and it’s the band. If you can sing, even better.”
Cajuns quickly adopted the accordion, and the accordion, in turn, changed their French country music, becoming perhaps more central to it than even the violin or guitar. Louis Michot, who plays fiddle for the Lost Bayou Ramblers of Broussard, Louisiana, says that when his brother Andre “throws the accordion in there, it brings a deeper and funkier rhythm.” Andre learned how to play the accordion from Ray Abshire, who learned from Nathan Abshire, who learned from hearing it in dance halls in and around Lafayette. “The way it honks is funky and junky,” says Michot.
The King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, played a piano accordion, which differs from the button accordion in that the button accordion makes one sound when you push its bellows and another when you pull. Piano accordions sound the same notes whether they’re pushed or pulled. The right hand has a keyboard at its disposal and plays the melody. The left hand, in Glen Hartman’s words, has “all the funny buttons.” It plays the accompaniment—bass notes and chords. “Taking advantage of both hands is a little bit like juggling,” says Schatz. There are chromatic accordions, which can sound every note, and diatonic accordions, which are locked into certain scales. All accordions use bellows to push air through reeds and create notes, but there’s no set way to make this happen.
“I think of the accordion as a very distinctive flavor, like garlic, that can go in a bunch of different directions,” says Schatz. In addition to Cajun and zydeco, accordions in New Orleans bellow to gypsy jazz, dance music from Martinique, and a host of other genres. Mary Go Round uses her accordion to transform her folklorist-style storytelling into a cabaret package. Walt McClements lends his accordion to the rambunctious, brassy circus sound of Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? The Zydepunks are releasing a new album, Exile Waltz, later this month, and Christian Kuffner and Eve use accordions to create a hybrid of Cajun, Irish, Klezmer and punk sounds. Ron Hodges of the Iguanas plays his diatonic accordion in a Tex-Mex style.
For Schatz, playing the accordion has opened up a world of ethnic folk music, which, in turn, influences how he writes his own songs. “With the accordion, if I want to play something that sounds like it’s Middle Eastern, it’s easier to do so. Certain licks that you play on the accordion I think, ‘Oh, that sounds like the swamp to me,’ and others sound like the Romanian countryside.”
But the versatility of the accordion doesn’t stop at its culture references. “The nice thing about it is that you can play it like a single note instrument, like a clarinet, or you can play it more like a church organ and have chords,” says Schatz. “The rough rule of thumb,” he continues, “is the more people I play with, the less busy I make my own parts.”
In the Herringbone Orchestra, Courtney Lain follows the same rule, playing quietly in order to be in step with the other acoustic instruments. Unfortunately, this often means you don’t hear all the crazy sounds coming from Lain’s accorgan, which is an electric, Italian-made accordion with an organ synthesizer built into it. The accorgan works like a pump organ, producing two simultaneous sounds—those of an acoustic accordion and an electronic organ. Lain hugs her accorgan in close and rests her left cheek on the button cabinet in order to listen through the bellows. Her atmospheric and playfully creepy accorgan layers a drama line under the delicate tinkle of harp, bass clarinet, cello, drums, and euphonium. “I use the quieter settings because I don’t want to overpower everybody. That’s the beauty of having an orchestra, the sounds together. ”
Patrick Harison plays accordion in the Panorama Jazz Band, where he says he uses the accordion like a horn rather than a piano. “It’s an air-powered instrument using reeds, so it has more in common with the clarinet or the sax, rather than a strap-on piano.” But even though their sounds are generated differently, the relationship between the piano and the accordion is not incidental. Several local musicians, including Hartman, Lain and Bart Ramsey, began their accordion careers precisely because they were piano players. “I took up the accordion because I’m a piano player, but I couldn’t take a piano to a camp fire,” says Ramsey, whose band VaVaVoom brings to New Orleans the sounds of French jazz, which the accordion enthusiastically permeated over the last century.
It can march in a band. It can play backup or lead. And what’s more, it adds atmosphere. “The accordion brings a great deal of life and a lot of nostalgic connotations for people,” says Jonathan Freilich, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars’ guitar player. In a city breathing the past into the present, the accordion has become one more indispensable tool. Klezmer, which Hartman describes as Jewish party music, hails from Eastern Europe. The Klezmer All-Stars weren’t the first to bring Klezmer to New Orleans, but they were the first to bring it back to the bars and the streets—the places where it originated. “It’s crazy dance music,” says Hartman, “and people like to get crazy.”
For all of the instrument’s evocative powers, Patrick Harison sums up the accordion’s charms simply. “Electricity can come and go,” he says, “but an accordion is a party in a box. Whenever you have an accordion, you can take your party with you.”