Julien Labro: Accordion & the Hot Club Tradition

Gigi Brooks interviews accordionist and composer about his instrument of choice, the Hot Club of Detroit and the music of Django Reinhardt

Accordionist and composer Julien Labro and member of the band Hot Club of Detroit, spent some time talking with me about his life and music career and his rare choice of instrument—the accordion.

Labro shares the band’s desire to pay tribute to the late, great European jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt in their latest release on Mack Avenue Records, Junction. The album also features the avant-garde sound of Ornette Coleman, blended with the acoustic grooves of Pat Metheny. The sound is bold and modern as he explains in our interview.

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Anna Webber

Hot Club of Detroit with Cyrille Aimee

Gigi Brooks: The accordion is a rare instrument used in jazz and as an instrument of choice. Did you start early on with the piano before the accordion?

Julien Labro: I did not start with piano. Actually the accordion I play only has buttons. It doesn’t have the keyboard that people in the United States know the accordion as, I don’t have piano keys on the right-hand side; it’s all buttons. It looks like a gigantic typewriter.

So you’re playing button board.

Yes, I am using the button board and that’s basically the first instrument that I started out with and I fell in love with it just listening to some music that featured it and I also saw it on T.V. I just loved the shape of it and that’s how I got started in music. Just listening to music with an accordion in it…I was like ‘wow this is pretty cool!’ I thought I would like to try to play that instrument whatever the name is and I eventually learned that it was an accordion. I was about 9 years old and I got started in to the weekly lessons and learning about harmony and theory and all of that in conjunction to music.

You do realize that’s an unusual instrument to bring into the 21st century again. One thing I find interesting about Hot Club of Detroit is the fact that you guys are using some very creative ways and styles of playing and the fact that you’ve included the accordion in the music is tremendous to me.

Cool! I’m glad you like it! Really we believe…personally as a performer I believe that regardless of what your instrument is as long as you can make it sound right and you have something to say and you’re really in touch with your feelings and your inner self and your heart. Regardless of what instrument you play or what you use to express yourself and you’re honest about what you do…personally I don’t care what anyone plays, it’s about the message that you have. We’ve been doing this as a band, just trying to be ourselves and give a sound in our repertoire that’s unique to us and so more and more the evolution of us as a band is working to achieve those goals. It’s challenging, but it is fun and it’s an enjoyable process.

You are one of the original members of the group and also the composer of most of this album. You’ve also written a lot of the songs for your last three albums.

That’s correct.

Well since I only have you to talk with, you’re going to have to speak for the group.

Alright, so the group got started by Evan Perri, he’s our lead guitar player and he fell in love with the music of Django Reinhardt. He was a rock guitarist at first and a jazz musician eventually, aspiring to be like Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery and he stumbled upon a Django Reinhardt record and that changed his life. He decided that he wanted to know more about that style of playing and acquire that style of guitar that he played which is acoustic and the set up is very different…the action is very different than a regular guitar…a jazz Bach if you would.

Yes.

And so he decided the best way to learn this music was to form a band. I believe he got the group started…it was just a trio another guitar player, playing rhythm and a bass player. They did that for a while and then at the same time I came to school and we were both students at Wayne State University in Detroit. We met there and he heard that I was French and he started asking me questions about Django Reinhardt and everything, but honestly I did not know much about that music. All I cared about at that time was to play fusion, I was way into Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker and people like that.

All of my favorites by the way!

Oh yeah! How can you go wrong with these artists? Some of the pillars of the 60’s and even today. It’s great.

To me as an accordion player, I was really looking to try to play stuff that was definitely not expected of my instrument. Yet, I ran into this guy, Evan, who’s all about this European sound and the music of Django Reinhardt, so I kind of’ learned about it; and then I was like ‘o.k. so this guy wants me to start in the band and he’s got this band going. So lets just go with it and see what happens’.

So I joined the band and eventually we got a six piece at first we were not sure and we were trying out clarinet and violin. We ended up going with clarinet, which was featured on our first album. After that we decided to go with a more modern sound and so we opted for saxophone. That’s how saxophone came into the band and while all of this was going on we had the pleasure of meeting Paul Brady, who is our rhythm guitar player and he’s been a member of the band almost from the beginning. As far as the rest of the line-up we have Shawn Conley on bass and Jon Irabagon on reeds.

Also you have the French vocalist, Cyrille Aimee.

Correct. This is the first time we actually feature vocals in an album. Prior to Junction, all of our albums were strictly instrumental. We met Cyrille about two years ago. We read about her when she won third-place in the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition. What amazed us about that was that she was actually from the final resting place of Django Reinhardt.

That’s ironic!

Exactly! What are the odds?! So we’re thinking she’s French and she lives in Brooklyn, we have to check this out and see if she knows about Django Reinhardt and what kind of music she’s into. So then we contacted her and met her and started making music and the click was instant. It was so easy to work together and she’s fabulous and works really well in that genre.

I feel like adding her accents the music of Junction.

I think it brought new flavors and she is featured on three tracks and I liked the experience and the results.

I am still fascinated by the accordion and the way that you’re are able to make it work and fit into the music. I can hear fusion, avant-garde, the Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock influence; and the way you’ve rolled it together to create this album.

You’re right in the sense that musically there’s so much stuff out there and so many people are doing so many great things, you can only get influenced by greatness. When you mentioned those names a moment ago…to me, to us, we make it our own and it becomes our background and heritage. It becomes part of your language and a part of us.

Do you believe that the sound of Hot Club of Detroit has brought back something that has been forgotten concerning gypsy, European jazz?

It has, but actually for us we are not really concerning ourselves with what we sound like. We really try to have our own identity and not try to think ‘oh, is there enough gypsy or enough funk’. The way we approach this band has nothing to do with gypsy music. We approach it like a regular acoustic jazz band. I would say the main difference in our band is that we are acoustic and a “drumless” ensemble and it’s got two acoustic guitars and an accordion. So you are not going to find this in a lot of jazz bands around; perhaps some people have the tendency of associating a lot of those sounds with gypsy music, but we don’t try to go for that at all.

There is definitely a resurgence of world music in general. Even jazz musicians more and more are blending Middle Eastern, Indian music and African music into their styles.

I have to ask how did you guys choose the band name, Hot Club of Detroit? It is quite unique.

It is unique for some, but here it goes… the founder of this music was Django Reinhardt, this gypsy guitar player who was regarded as the one and only ambassador for jazz in Europe…like as the jazz European guy. He had the opportunity to play with anybody from Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman; and so he was one of those European musicians and probably the first one who was regarded as a jazz musician outside of the United States.

The band that Django Reinhardt formed was called The Hot Club of France with the famous violinist, Stephane Grappelli. So that is how we got the name Hot Club of Detroit. Now, so many cities in the world basically keep the first part Hot Club and then add their own city to it. That’s why you have so many “Hot Clubs” around. Like I said earlier, Detroit is such a big music city, but even though we’re called Hot Club of Detroit, we are not attempting to do anything like The Hot Club of France, because it’s already been done in the past and we’ll never be able to recreate that the right way. So we strive to be original, modern and current, even though we have that name.

In which of the compositions on this album do you believe that if Django Reinhardt were alive today, he would say “Hey guys I really dig that?”

That’s interesting! Man I don’t know! This is a really good question! I’ll tell you one thing, what I believe is, ahh…Django, if he were alive today…he only lived to be forty-three years old; but you can see how much his musical language evolved in such a short career. I think if he were alive today he would be digging most of that repertoire just because he’s probably be writing and approaching that style in a similar way. I mean really…I’m being honest with you and that’s why it’s hard for me to think. I imagine if the guy is alive right now…and knowing how much in forty-three years what he’s done musically and how he was able to absorb so many musical styles…I’m mean the guy towards the end of his life was playing like a be-bop guitar player. What’s amazing to me is that I believe he would dig all of these tunes on here, because harmonically he wouldn’t have a problem with any of it. But if I have to pick one I would think, “Goodbye Mr. Shearing,” because he would always play amazing ballads and knew how to write it down. If he were alive today I know he would be able to compose anything we have on this record.

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