The accordion doesn't get much respect in the United States – not since "The Lawrence Welk Show" and uncounted polka bands placed the instrument well outside the realm of chic.
Nevertheless, the glorious squeezebox holds a noble tradition in jazz, with artists such as Art Van Damme, Leon Sash, Guy Klucevsek, Richard Galliano and Astor Piazzolla (playing bandoneon) proving the instrument can convey lightning virtuosity and profound musicality as eloquently as any other.
The latest and most promising addition to this regal list is Julien Labro, whom Chicagoans have heard dispensing his wizardry in various club and concert halls but never quite the way he does in a surprisingly seductive new album, "From This Point Forward" (Azica). Playing with Chicago's Spektral Quartet, which will celebrate the release with him Wednesday night at City Winery, Labro emerges as a triple threat: brilliant technician, poetic melodist and cunning arranger.
You can decide for yourself whether to consider this music jazz, classical, South American, crossover or you-name-it. Ultimately, "From This Point Forward" embraces all these idioms, and others, with Labro's phenomenal dexterity at the keys and intrinsic feel for various Latin American rhythms serving as musical focal point.
The man simply makes the instrument sing, swing and sway.
"I remember we went to see (Labro) with the Hot Club of Detroit at the Green Mill," recalls Spektral Quartet violist Doyle Armbrust, still marveling at the memory. "He's got to be in our Top 10 of most virtuosic players we've ever seen. That level of musicianship – we just wanted to be part of that."
Labro has that effect on listeners, who, alas, don't expect to encounter this caliber of taste, technical mastery and tonal ingenuity from an instrument much-maligned in our popular culture. But Labro, who was born and raised in the south of France, doesn't concern himself with public perception of the mighty accordion.
"Once in awhile you get, 'So when will you play a polka?' Or, 'When will you be on 'The Lawrence Welk Show?" says Labro, who lives in Toronto but spends ample time in New York, Chicago and on the road.
"I don't really care. … I realize the accordion is one aspect of expressing myself. I could be playing kazoo. People make amazing music with any instrument."
But it was the accordion that seized Labro's attention as a youngster born into a decidedly non-musical family in a small town south of Toulouse, France, 33 years ago. Having flipped on the TV one day when he was 8 or 9, he says, Labro saw the instrument in action and was smitten – by the way it looked.
"I really loved the way the instrument was moving – the motion, it was mesmerizing," remembers Labro. "Sonically it was very appealing to me, too. I asked my parents if I could try. For some reason, I saw myself playing that very early on."
After a year or two of lessons, Labro knew he was going to become a professional, but he soon determined that the popular music he was being taught paled alongside the works of Bach and Beethoven that he was listening to voraciously. His subsequent classical studies at the Marseille Conservatory of Music fed his deeper musical needs, and while he was there he discovered another kind of music: jazz.
"People like Miles Davis and Herbie (Hancock) and Charlie Parker, of course," says Labro. "All of a sudden I realized – or I sensed – there was a kind of freedom in jazz that was very appealing to me, and that perhaps I was trying to find within my music."
This revelation prompted Labro to pick up and move to America, where he studied music at Wayne State University in Detroit and launched his career as a jazz accordionist who ranged freely into other musical arenas.
Two years ago, Labro was paired with the Spektral Quartet for "The Big Squeeze" accordion concert at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, and the musicians clicked, leading to their unusual new recording. The repertoire includes sublimely lyrical music by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, with a serene guest solo from jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon; an ingenious arrangement of Zenon's "El Club de la Serpiente," from the saxophonist's landmark album "Rayuela"; and, of course, a work by Argentine tango master and bandoneon virtuoso Piazzolla.
"Astor Piazzolla has been for me, and still is to this day, one of my mentors that I've never met," says Labro of the tango giant who died in Buenos Aires in 1992 at age 71. "I'm always blown away by his music, especially (by) the struggles that he had to go through to get his music out there."
But Labro's arrangement of Piazzolla's "Milonga Loca" serves as the end point of the album, not the beginning. Before that, we hear Labro and the Spektral musicians – for whom Labro has penned intricate, demanding parts – dig into repertoire that will be new to most listeners. This includes eminently appealing works by Argentines Dino Saluzzi, Diego Schissi and Fernando Otero (the latter two wrote their own arrangements of their music) as well as the rhythmically buoyant and harmonically restless work of Brazilian Hermeto Pascoal.
It's as if Labro and friends are trying to say that audiences can love Piazzolla as much as Labro does without obsessing on the master.
"Their mission," says Labro, referring to the Spektrals, "is to make sure to play new music and traditional repertoire from all genres. And I always wanted to show people that there is music beyond Piazzollla. … That there is life after Piazzolla."
Certainly there is in "From This Point Forward," which marks the beginning of Labro's partnership with the Spektral Quartet, not the end. For their next recording, they plan to venture into contemporary classical music.
In so doing, they'll be expanding the repertoire for an instrument that richly deserves it.
Julien Labro and the Spektral Quartet perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St.; $15-$20; 312-733-9463 or citywinery.com.
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