Esteban “Steve” Jordan Dies

Steve JordanIt’s a sad day for accordion and Tejano music fans; legendary accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan died last night of complications from liver cancer. He was 71 years old.

Known as “El Parche” because of his eye patch, Jordan started his career in conjunto in the 1960s, but soon began exploring and incorporating other musical styles into his work — blending rock, Latin jazz, blues, and salsa with traditional polkas and rancheras. He pushed the limits of the diatonic accordion and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new technology, using electronic devices like phase shifters and fuzzboxes to shape his sound.

“‘What Steve Jordan did was, he electrified the accordion,’ says Sunny Sauceda, a rising star on the squeezebox. ‘He used pedals, he brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in the effects that had never been done on the accordion — to this day, nobody does it.’”

Definitely one of the all-time greats. Rest in peace, El Parche.

MP3 Monday: 2010 Grammy Winners

Last night’s Grammy Awards weren’t just about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and the wonders of Auto-Tune. At the pre-telecast awards ceremony, a handful of accordionists picked up awards, too. Let’s review the big winners:

Best Cajun or Zydeco Album: Buckwheat Zydeco

The Cajun/Zydeco category has only been around for three years, but it’s already produced three different winners. Buckwheat Zydeco played organ for the legendary Clifton Chenier’s band before picking up the accordion and, since Chenier’s death in 1987, has become zydeco’s best-known (and most mainstream) artist. Lay My Burden Down is probably his most mature album to date, mixing his party-time zydeco with inspired covers (including “When the Levee Breaks”).

Best Tejano Album: Los Texmaniacs

We reviewed this album last summer and were excited to see it recognized last night. Both Texmaniacs leader Max Baca and accordionist David Farias have shared in other Grammy wins, but this was the first for their group that combines blues and rock with traditional conjunto. On Borders y Bailes, released on Smithsonian Folkways, they breathe new life into the century-old music of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Best Norteño Album: Los Tigres Del Norte

With more than 32 million records sold in their 40-year history, Los Tigres have long been the kings (or “Los Jefes de Jefes”) of norteño music, so their victory was no surprise. What’s surprising, though, is that Tu Noche Con… is their first live album. Los Tigres take their role as spokesmen of the people very seriously, and the album contains a great mix of the politically and socially-charged corridos, rancheras, ballads and cumbias that have built them a loyal following.

And finally, for those wondering how 18-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr would fair after the polka Grammy’s demise last year — he lost to Loudon Wainright III for Best Traditional Folk Album. There’s always next year.

Grammy Nominees Announced

The Best Polka Album award may be gone, but there are still plenty of accordions among the nominees announced yesterday for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. The Best Cajun/Zydeco Album category is full of them:

The accordion is apparently mandatory in the Best Norteño Album category, too:

There are also a handful of accordionists scattered through other categories. Los Texmaniacs and Sunny Sauceda are both vying for Best Tejano Album, Weird Al Yankovic is up for Best Comedy Album, and David Hidalgo’s accordion was a key ingredient in Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life, nominated for Best Americana Album.

And finally, many thought that the demise of the polka award would spell the end of 18-time winner Jimmy Sturr’s Grammy run. Not so fast — Jimmy and his orchestra garnered yet another Grammy nomination; this time, for Best Traditional Folk Album. The competition will be stiffer but, after all these years, I know better than to bet against Jimmy Sturr.

MP3 Monday: Los Enmascarados

Los EnmascaradosCombine KISS with lucha libre and put it to an accordion-fueled conjunto beat, and you have Los Enmascarados. Wearing the type of colorful masks typically seen on Mexican wrestlers — and hiding their real personas behind nicknames — this energetic band has a built a loyal following in Texas, even earning a Tejano Music Awards nomination. And, just in case you try to pick a fight with them, the band would like to remind you: “No Somos Luchadores” (We’re Not Wrestlers).

MP3 Monday: Los Texmaniacs

Los Texmaniacs: Borders y BailesIn conjunto music, the 12-string bajo sexto is the accordion’s best friend: a constant companion who handles the bass and backbeat, allowing the accordion player to focus on right-hand melody (and often ignore the left-hand bass buttons entirely). As conjunto music’s premier bajo sexto player, Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs has become the guy every accordionist wants to play with.

Baca started playing bass in his father’s band at the age of eight and formed his own band when he was just twelve. He eventually went on to play with Flaco Jiménez and then the Texas Tornados, the popular cross-over group that included Jiménez, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, and Augie Meyers. Baca loved the Tornados’ rock-and-roll sound, but was drawn to the traditional conjunto music of his roots as well. In 1997 he created Los Texmaniacs and went to work fusing blues and rock-and-roll influences with the traditional conjunto pairing of button accordion and bajo sexto.

In recognition of the way Los Texmaniacs has pushed the envelope with conjunto, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Los Texmaniacs’ Borders y Bailes this month as part of their ongoing Tradiciones/Traditions series showcasing music from Latin American traditions. Los Texmaniacs will also perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington next week.

The track below (“Redova”) is a bouncy instrumental duet between Baca’s bajo sexto and David Farias’ accordion. The redova rose to popularity in Europe in the mid-1800s and was imported to Mexico shortly thereafter; its sprightly one-two-three step resembles a fast waltz. You can still hear it amongst the polkas, schottisches, cumbias, and huapangos at a typical conjunto dance.

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Steve Jordan Profile on NPR

Steve JordanDoing its part for Accordion Awareness Month, NPR’s All Things Considered had a piece today on accordion legend Esteban “Steve” Jordan. Over the course of his lengthy career, Jordan has brought styles and techniques to the button accordion that no one had ever imagined.

“‘What Steve Jordan did was, he electrified the accordion,’ says Sunny Sauceda, a rising star on the squeezebox. ‘He used pedals, he brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in the effects that had never been done on the accordion — to this day, nobody does it.’

Then there’s the whole jazz thing, says Joel Guzman, an acclaimed traditional accordionist from Austin, Texas. ‘He’s playing flat-fifths and raised 11ths, rhythmically so deep… So, from a musical standpoint, he’s a genius.’”

Today, Jordan is 70 and, despite fighting cirrhosis of the liver and cancer, he’s hard at work with nine albums worth of unreleased material (where he plays every instrument) that he’s preparing for release through his website later this summer. I’m looking forward to hearing what El Parche has up his billowing sleeves this time.

MP3 Monday: 2009 Grammy Winners

While the headlines around yesterday’s Grammy Awards focused on the artists featured during the CBS telecast, we’re turning the spotlight on those noble, accordion-toting winners who flew under the radar at the pre-telecast ceremony.

It was no surprise that Jimmy Sturr walked away with his 18th Grammy for Best Polka Album. This was Sturr’s fourth consecutive win and, at this point, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone else wins this category. (Per our interview with Jimmy three years ago: “I’ll [step down] when the New York Yankees do.”)

Meanwhile, Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet took home the Grammy for Best Zydeco/Cajun Album. (Initially, we heard that Steve Riley won this award, but it turns out there was some confusion because both albums have the same title.) Unfortunately, I don’t have any clips from their winning album — but I did find one place where you can buy it online:

Conjunto legends Los Tigres del Norte won once again for Best Norteño Album. They’ve already collected numerous Latin Grammys over the years and appear to have extended their dominion over the main awards ceremony as well.

One of our longtime favorites, They Might Be Giants, won their second Grammy, this time for Best Musical Album for Children. The Here Come the 123s album and DVD has been in heavy rotation in our household for months and nothing calms our fussy baby faster.

If you know of any other accordion artists who won hardware at the Grammys last night, let us know!

25 Songs: Flaco Jimenez

For some, music is in their blood. One in a long line of conjunto legends — including his grandfather (Patricio Jimenez) and father (Santiago Jimenez Sr.) — Flaco Jimenez has become tejano music’s unofficial ambassador to the world, spreading the music and absorbing rock, country, and jazz influences along the way. His list of collaborators is extensive, including Ry Cooder, Dwight Yoakum, Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones, and numerous others; not to mention his stint as part of the Texas Tornados with Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Freddie Fender. No matter who he’s playing with, though, his sound is instantly recognizable; this Flaco quote does a nice job of summarizing why:

“The way I learned to play the accordion was on the wild and happy side, much like Cajun and zydeco music. One of my early idols was Clifton Chenier. The way he played, it was like the accordion was yelling at you: hey, take this. I like to make my accordion yell and scream and make it happy.”

The Sounds of San Antonio

Accordion lovers descended on San Antonio this past weekend for the International Accordion Festival, featuring two dozen artists from around the world performing conjunto, polka, tango, zydeco, and everything in between. Early reports indicate it was another fantastic festival. For those (like us) who couldn’t make it, check out these festival photos, including shots of Boise-based basque band Amuma Says No and one of our local Bay Area groups, Rupa and the April Fishes. Or watch this up-close video of conjunto pioneer Paulino Bernal performing “Idalia.”

Steve Jordan Tribute in Austin

Steve JordanHe goes by many names: Esteban, Steve, “El Parche,” “accordion wizard,” or even “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.” No matter what you call him, though, there’s no denying that Esteban “Steve” Jordan is one of the most innovative and influential accordion players ever to pick up the instrument.

Born in Texas in 1939 as one of 15 children, Jordan was partially blinded as an infant and has worn his trademark eye patch (“el parche”) ever since. He made numerous conjunto records during the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade he started exploring and incorporating other musical styles into his work. He fused Latin jazz, salsa, rock, and blues with traditional rancheras and polkas, bringing new rhythms into the conjunto fold. Jordan also forged ahead with new technology, using electronic devices like phase shifters and fuzzboxes to shape his sound, and collaborating with Hohner on his custom Tex-Mex Rockordeon. In 1982, he was one of the first musicians inducted into the Tejano Conjunto Hall of Fame.

This Sunday afternoon, there’ll be a concert in Steve’s honor at the H&H Ballroom in Austin. The list of performers is like a “Who’s Who” of Conjunto/Tejano music — Little Joe, Max Baca and the Texmaniacs, Conjunto Los Pinkys, and a special performance by Steve Jordan himself. For those of us who can’t make it to the show, here’s a classic Steve Jordan track that was included on the Legends of the Accordion compilation:

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