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.

The Man Who Would Be Polka King

Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.

By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):

And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.

Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.

Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.

Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…

Accordions in Austin: SXSW 2010

SXSW 2010It’s that time of year again: the start of the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and our accompanying roundup of a few of the accordion-toting artists performing this year. With hundreds of bands on more than eighty stages over five days, you’re bound to find something you like.

  • Pinata Protest
    We’ve been following this energetic, accordion-powered punk/conjunto band from San Antonio for a few years now. Fun, frenetic, and far from your typical Tejano music.
    Cantina mp3
  • Takashi Kamide
    Takashi Kamide switched from classical piano to jazz piano in high school after hearing the legendary Bill Evans. But after being inspired by the sounds of Richard Galliano and Stefan Hussong, he upgraded to jazz accordion.
    Takashi Kamide mp3
  • Cerronato
    Inspired by Colombian vallenato and cumbia, this Austin quartet fuses rich four-part harmonies with accordion, bass, and percussion in an authentic, but innovative mix.
    Mi Compadre Bernabe mp3
  • The Woes
    With a lineup sometimes as large as thirty musicians, the Brooklyn-based Woes play a lively stew of Delta blues and early Country, of bluegrass and New Orleans marching band music, dished out by banjo, harmonica, accordion, French Horn and organ.
    The Secret mp3
  • Los Texas Wranglers
    From traditional Tex-Mex conjunto to country and western, the Wranglers have been packing dance halls in the Austin/San Antonio area for more than ten years.
    Un Poquito De Carino mp3

This is by no means an exhaustive list — check the SXSW site for more bands, as well as schedule and venue information. And for other accordion artists that you may have missed out on, check out our SXSW writeups from 2006, 2007, and 2008 (we clearly dropped the ball last year).

Art Van Damme, 1920-2010

Art Van DammeThere aren’t a ton of jazz accordionists and one could argue that, if it wasn’t for Art Van Damme, there might not be any at all. Often called the father of jazz accordion, Van Damme was a pioneer who helped establish the accordion as a serious jazz instrument. He passed away on Monday at the age of 89.

Heavily inspired by the recordings of the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, Van Damme developed his early style by adapting Goodman’s solos to the accordion. In 1945, he joined NBC Radio as a studio musician where he recorded more than 150 shows with his quintet, in addition to numerous TV appearances on the Tonight Show, Dinah Shore Show, and others. Over the course of fifty years performing, he recorded more than 40 albums, toured throughout Europe and the US, and was voted “Top Accordionist” in Downbeat magazine’s annual poll of jazz musicians ten years running. His melodic improvisation and light touch were hallmarks of his playing.

If you’re interested in exploring Art’s music, you can find a few of his 1950′s albums on iTunes. I also highly recommend the four-CD compilation Squeeze Me: The Jazz and Swing Accordion Story. It’s an excellent introduction to jazz accordion and features tracks from Van Damme, Joe Mooney, Johnny Meyer, Mat Mathews, and many more.

Minding the Accordion Store

Forget the recession; running an accordion shop is a challenging business even in the best of times. Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a great profile of the Italo-American Accordion Company in Oak Lawn, Illinois, which has been in business for nearly 95 years. Joe Romagnoli took over the business in 1948 and made a name for himself by selling meticulously hand-crafted instruments. Today, his wife Anne runs the business, but it’s a far cry from the accordion company’s heyday. According to John Castiglione, who runs Castiglione Accordions in Warren, Michigan:

“The market is more scattered than it was in the ’50s, when the accordion was the No. 1 instrument and everyone took lessons and there were schools… People still buy, but for all intents and purposes, you don’t find stores selling just accordions.”

At Italo-American, they’re lucky to sell a handful of instruments a month; most of their business comes through repairs. But Anne, who’s now 83 years old, refuses to retire and makes a spirited accordion sales pitch to anyone who walks through her door.

“If you have an old accordion, put life into it. The accordion is a happy thing. There is no other instrument this self-sufficient. You play guitar, you need people. But you can take an accordion to a picnic. You can’t take a trumpet to a picnic!”

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MP3 Monday: Monsters of Accordion

Monsters of AccordionWe’re still unwinding from a fun weekend at the Cotati Accordion Festival, but there’s no time to rest. Not when the Monsters of Accordion are about to unleash their fury on the West Coast. The brainchild of accordion madman Jason Webley, this annual event showcases some of the best accordion-toting singer-songwriters around in a whirlwind, week-long tour.

Joining Webley for this year’s edition are Stevhen Iancu of the Dolomites, Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera, and Geoff Berner. At various stops along the way, they’ll be joined by special guests like Mood Area 52 and Mark Growden. This year’s tour kicks off in Seattle on Wednesday and makes stops in Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento before winding up in Ashland next Tuesday. (Check our calendar for dates and times.)

Street performer turned cult musician, Jason Webley is known for his gravelly voice, his caterwauling squeezebox, and his unique ability to involve the audience in his shows; most of his concerts end with the entire crowd locked arm-in-arm, singing at the tops of their lungs. (We’ll share some video evidence of this from the Cotati festival later this week.)

Stevhen Koji Iancu is a Japanese/Romanian British Immigrant who puts together a fiery blend of Gypsy music, fusing older Japanese styles of Enka with subtle elements of Cumbia, Ska, Punk, Balkan and Romanian music, and many other styles from around the world. Iancu has also performed with numerous groups, including Balkan Beat Box, and was a touring member of Gogol Bordello.

Eric Stern is the bandleader and primary composer of Vagabond Opera, Portland’s favorite absurdist cabaret ensemble. A premiere operatic tenor, accordionist, composer and showman, Stern commands the room with his incendiary stage presence and devilish virtuosity. Son of an accomplished Gaullic accordionist, he is adept at countless styles, at times performing on a specially-tuned quarter tone accordion to play complex Arabic melodies.

“I want to make original klezmer music that’s drunk, dirty, political and passionate. As a Jew of eastern european descent, I feel I have a calling to make this music live, not just preserve it under glass like something in a museum.” Berner’s music, inspired by traditional Jewish folk song and fueled by whiskey, dresses his wry wit and biting social commentary in shockingly beautiful, plaintive melodies.

If you need more convincing, check out our recap of the Monsters of Accordion 2007 show in San Francisco, including photos and a video of Corn Mo doing the best solo accordion rendition of “We are the Champions” you may ever hear.

Remembering Clyde Forsman (1915-2009)

Clyde ForsmanIn the spring of 1995, I was an eager college freshman doing what all young men dream of when they leave home: learning to play the accordion. I didn’t have a teacher or any lesson books, but I did have Those Darn Accordions’ album Squeeze This on cassette.

On the cover was Clyde Forsman, his octogenarian back covered with tattoos, smiling broadly and showing off his biceps while lifting an accordion. When people kidded me about playing the accordion, I showed them that album and made them listen to Clyde’s rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” — a stunning version that rendered all other covers futile. Clyde Forsman helped me prove that the accordion could be cool.

Clyde passed away Friday night at his home in San Francisco; he was 94. One of the founding members of Those Darn Accordions, he played with the band from 1989 to 2000 and was easily its most beloved member. He won over crowds with his charm, humor, and the way he would take off his shirt to reveal his fantastic tattoos before launching into “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or the aforementioned “Fire.” An amazing entertainer and an incomparable accordion ambassador, he will be sorely missed.

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.

Quick Links: Oh Canada!

Once again, we spotlight our hockey and accordion-lovin’ neighbors:

  • Accordion Revolution
    Great pair of interviews that focus almost entirely on accordion-playing. One with our old favorite Geoff Berner (touring in support of his new album, Klezmer Mongrels) and the other with Felicity Hamer of the United Steelworkers of Montreal.
  • Joanna Chapman-Smith
    Like Geoff Berner, Joanna is another klezmer-influenced accordionist from Vancouver. She combines jazzy vocal stylings with acoustic roots instrumentation, killer clarinet lines and accordion flourishes, a touch of modern jazz and a touch of cabaret.
  • Walter Ostanek Band
    Canada’s Polka King finally has a website (and blog) worthy of his title. I really like the videos — Walter is warm, genuine, and, of course, an incredible accordion player.

How Many Hippies? 17 Hippies

17 HippiesThey aren’t really hippies. In fact, there aren’t even 17 of them (13 at last count). But that hasn’t stopped Berlin’s 17 Hippies from rolling dozens of genres — Eastern European folk, French chanson, Cajun/zydeco, and more — into a unique pop style all their own. Lyrics sung in German, French, and English somehow all feel at home when layered over accordion, ukulele, banjo, clarinet, bouzouki, and trombone. When the band first started, members intentionally chose instruments they had never touched; twelve years and 1200 concerts later, they’re still playing traditional tunes and instruments in an entirely untraditional way.

Last year, 17 Hippies played at Mountain Stage in West Virginia; you can listen that entire, high-energy appearance online at the NPR website. And if I haven’t sold you enough, here’s a track off their excellent 2007 album, Heimlich:

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