[12 December 2004]
The squeezebox is definitely back beyond being damned by George Shearing’s repeating the old definition of a gentleman: a man who could play the instrument but refrains from so doing. Shearing quoted that to send up an interviewer enthusiastic about the 1940 recording on which Leonard Feather demonstrated his gifts as a blues pianist, and Shearing laid down the basis of a future reputation as a gentleman.
The problem with every instrument from (at least) the saxophones on has been that there was a time when hardly anybody played anything interesting on it and a lot of people used it as a utility, pending the invention of electronic means of being semi-versatile. People were a little galled when Clifton Chenier arrived in London and played Scottish music rather than his wanted Zydeco (which is anything but the corruption white Louisiana Cajuns probably still claim). Then came the Bandoneon, and the happy suggestion of Nadia Boulanger that her Argentinean composition pupil A. Piazzola should hold on to the unusual mixture of French elements and Argentinean which he played in order to eat and study with Boulanger.
Britain has Jack Emblow, outstanding in an appreciation of French Bal Musette music as a way to be the jazz musician he has been for a lot of his life. There has to be (or have been) some way in toward playing jazz on any instrument, an appreciation of the instrument in much better than the makeshift terms of earlier efforts on the saxophones. The journey begins with something amateurish, or fun. Fun is better, because it can turn serious and become delight.
The opening title of this set from two concerts has Galliano doing his Bandoneon bit on accordion, and Portal on soprano saxophone. It’s a tango. “Taraf” is the second number, and Portal plays clarinet (and how!) and the music is Middle Eastern. The same dramatic bandoneon noise is applied, though Galliano’s music could well be transcribed for string quartet without much difference in style.
“Giselle” has a bit more syncopation. I am reminded that, at one brief time, Benny Goodman’s small group featured accordion. This is much more like Reinhardt territory, though, with Portal’s clarinet mercurial. Portal composed “Little Tango” and on that there’s no need for Galliano to try to sound like a bandoneon since Portal demonstrates his ability on that instrument. Very adept he is, and the interplay is amazing, the singing penetration of his box being complemented by demonstrations of similar sound value from Galliano, who also uses the heftier, more orchestral potential of his box. This is a terrific duet, with interplay and lead switching and passages of duet in which the quiet playing of both men pipes delicately.
On Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”, I thought for a moment that we had both men squeezeboxing again, but Galliano was in full symphony orchestra spread, preparing a way for the reedman’s entry on soprano in an “Autumn Leaves” sort of tune. The huge bodies of accordion sound swell and move together toward a quiet end, with the soprano ending gentle.
It’s clarinet again on Hermeto Pascual’s “Chorinho Para Ele”, which sounds almost ragtimey in the reed part, though very French, which Galliano also sounds as he dances up the elephantine ends of his instrument into… Portal.
Bass clarinet opens Portal’s “Ivan Vissarionovich Kossakof” and makes use of the upper registers of the instrument. Galliano enters and accompanies the reedman into a dance that might have some Jewish, as well as Russian. They ought to have tried some Gershwin or Kern.
Galliano’s “Viaggio” explores the higher sonorities of the box, so that there’s a half-suspicion that among all the noises, which build nearer to church organ, Portal might be piping. Eventually, in a dance section, the soprano comes piping and bounding in. Portal does like to scintillate with rapid but lyrical dartings and curlicues toward the upper end of whichever woodwind he’s blowing. Galliano can also make his fingers move with celerity, and whether Portal’s having a sit down with bandoneon or darting about on whichever horn, the fingering which produces solos on the box can also be turned to echo what the reedman does.
That’s how they open Piazzolla’s “Libertango”, each again on his own squeezebox. The synchronisation of parts in the resultant counterpoint is miraculous, with attacking phrases, though not those great bangs Piazzolla liked to indulge in, and no doubt needed his band for. Portal seems to like to be up where his clarinet goes, but they both explore considerable ranges of tonality and dynamics. The occasional phrase suggests the clarinet is in there, but it’s another measure of tonal versatility. This is the one live concert item on which they go in for stomping effects, and the audience goes wild at the end.
“Indifference”, composed by Tony Mureno and Joseph Columbo, is another duet between interweaving squeezeboxes. Bal Musette reclaims something of its earlier donations to tango. More fun, some of it is surely influenced by previously doing similar things with clarinet and accordion.
Michel Portal’s “Mozambique” begins on breathy, vibrato-heavy bass clarinet, with Galliano playing darkly. We’re almost into some of Ellington’s Afro-Eurasian exotica with this one, Galliano groaning away below his own upper-register prancing, and after some funny reed noises, more dynamics with a switch to soprano. And a surprise ending!
Another squeezebox duet, and then, I think for the first time, Portal playing harmonics or in unison with a melodic lead from the accordionist. It’s not clear at moments whether Portal is playing clarinet or soprano, but it has to be the latter. There’s one track more. Has the foregoing inspired anybody to find out what it’s like?