Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

The Accordion in Jazz: Who’s Laughing Now?

“How is an accordion like an artillery shell?” the old joke goes. “Once you hear it, it’s already too late.”

Andrea Parkins. Photo by Cristina Marx, Photomusix.

OK, that’s funny, but it also implies a problem. People who dismiss the accordion as soon as they hear it, as soon as it triggers associations with bad wedding bands, are not really listening to it. If they really listened to this contraption with the bellows and buttons, they’d recognize its tremendous technical versatility and emotional capacity. 

They’d begin to understand why it’s so central to such folk traditions as Cajun, zydeco, conjunto, tango, forró, choro, klezmer, vallenato, township jive, and Celtic—and why it’s becoming ever more visible in the jazz world in the hands of artists such as Gil Goldstein, Gary Versace, Andrea Parkins, Richard Galliano, Ben Thomas, Dino Saluzzi, and Vitor Gonçalves. 

“I enjoy the humor about accordion,” confesses Gonçalves, Anat Cohen’s regular sideman. “All instruments have their jokes and it’s nice to laugh about yourself and your instrument. But I also feel it’s important that we spread the word about all the wonderful and diverse music being played on the accordion. After my performances, I often hear people say, ‘Wow, I never knew the accordion could do all these things.’”

Saluzzi, who has released 14 albums on ECM as a bandoneon-playing leader, is less amused. “In these difficult times, I don’t know why someone would make jokes about a culture or a music or an instrument,” he says. “All I know is the bandoneon is an instrument which works very well in various styles, especially in chamber and orchestral music, as well as in jazz or folk music.”

“There’s all these stereotypes of the accordion,” adds Goldstein, who played the squeezebox in the Gil Evans Orchestra, “which I don’t like. People who are mean to the instrument are ignoring all those great zydeco accordion players, all those great Brazilian players, the tango and classical players. And I think it’s back in the jazz world. I don’t know if the Mike Brecker of the accordion has arisen, but I have faith that it’s going to happen.”


For the purposes of this article, we’re going to consider the piano accordion, the button accordion, the bandoneon, the concertina, the melodeon and any other bellows-driven aerophone instruments as part of the same family, despite their very real differences. The most familiar member is the piano accordion, which has a three-octave piano keyboard for the right hand and for the left two rows of single-note buttons plus three rows of triadic chordal buttons. This is the preferred instrument for most jazz and classical players, especially those who double on piano.

The chromatic button accordion offers a similar wealth of notes, but with buttons on the right side rather than black-and-white keys. Both this and the piano accordion are unisonoric, meaning they produce the same note whether you are pushing the bellows in or pulling them out. Most folk accordions, by contrast, are bisonoric. As on a harmonica, each valve makes a different note depending on whether the air is blowing in or out. They also tend to be diatonic, with each of the single, double or triple rows of buttons arranged as a seven-note scale as opposed to a 12-note octave.

Goldstein, now 71, is old enough to have grown up in pre-Beatles America, when the accordion was a popular choice for parents wanting to get their kids started in music without buying a piano. Easy-listening bandleader Lawrence Welk was on TV, and nearly every dance at a church or synagogue featured an accordion. When young Goldstein got serious about music, he switched to piano. But in his 30s, he visited his old home in Baltimore and brought his childhood instrument back to New York. It was like reconnecting with an old friend.


“The accordion has that sound of air through the reeds that’s so different from a hammer on a string,” he explains. “It has an incredible singing lyricism that’s not easy to get on the piano. You can hold notes out, stop them suddenly, add vibrato and even bend notes like a violinist or cellist. That’s something pianists are jealous of. The accordion can’t really bend a note, but you simulate it more closely than you can on the piano. There are trills and tremolos; anything you can do on woodwinds or strings, you can do on the accordion. You can move super smoothly to create a legato. There’s the bellow shake.”

He started bringing the instrument to sessions, and before long bandleaders were asking for it. Goldstein played the accordion on albums by Michel Petrucciani, Art Farmer, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Abbey Lincoln, and many more.

“I consider France’s Richard Galliano and Portugal’s João Barradas the greatest accordionists of my time,” Goldstein says. “João was a fan of my album with Joe Lovano, Viva Caruso, and asked me to do an arrangement of ‘Giant Steps’ for his first record, Directions. I did two tours with Richard, mostly playing piano, but we’d do half a dozen two-accordion pieces. I learned so much about control in the left hand from him.”


In 1992, Goldstein joined the Tango Kings, a quartet featuring Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Mike Richmond, and Goldstein. Rantala wrote most of the music for their 1995 album, The Tango Kings, but two tracks were by Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla: one of the 20th century’s great composers, the Duke Ellington of the bandoneon, and a major reason accordion-like instruments have made such a comeback in jazz. 

“Piazzolla was classically trained,” says Seattle bandoneon player Ben Thomas, “but he had a rebellious nature, and after hearing jazz during his years in New York as a kid, he put it all together and you had nuevo tango. You can’t really play modern tango without being influenced by him, like you can’t play jazz without being influenced by Armstrong or Coltrane. You can’t escape Piazzolla, but you have to be careful not to sound too much like him. We all love him and hate how much we love him. Now people are managing to move past him.”

A good example of that is this year’s Eternal Aporia, an appealing album that for the first time focuses on Thomas, an esteemed percussionist and vibraphonist, playing tangos on the bandoneon. He adopted the instrument late in his career, inspired by his love for social dancing.


“People who are mean to the instrument are ignoring all those great zydeco accordion players, all those great Brazilian players, the tango and classical players.” 

“Learning to dance salsa definitely helped me as a percussionist trying to move bodies,” he explains. “When I started dancing the tango too, I absolutely fell in love with the music. The music is so great, not just the Piazzolla stuff, but also the new stuff coming out of Argentina. I loved it so much that I bought a bandoneon in 2006 on a lark. I liked that so much that in 2007 I went to a tango institute in Buenos Aires for a week and a half, sort of a boot camp for musicians. Most of us were experienced musicians with little experience with tango.”

It wasn’t easy. In contrast to the logical layout of a piano accordion, the bisonoric bandoneon evolved from the concertina by adding buttons in a manner that doesn’t always put adjacent notes in adjacent positions. But with encouragement from teachers in Argentina and audiences in the Pacific Northwest, Thomas played the instrument more and more and started writing for it. The result on Eternal Aporia, ironically enough, is not dance music but rather modern jazz that draws on the rich, reedy tone of his instrument and the flexibility of nuevo tango.

“I use so many changing time signatures that it’s pretty far from dance music,” Thomas admits. “Tango has always had this conflict between melodic, lyrical lines and very angular, jagged rhythms. A dancer has to respond to both and resolve them. Despite my dance lessons, I care more about listening than dancing, so I don’t have to resolve them.”


While Thomas came to tango and the bandoneon as an outsider to the culture, Dino Saluzzi grew up as an insider. He got his first bandoneon at age seven in the Salta Province in northwest Argentina. Before long, he was playing with the Radio El Mundo Orchestra in Buenos Aires. He got international recognition with his prominent role in Gato Barbieri’s 1973 album, Chapter One: Latin America, and a decade later Charlie Haden was supporting Saluzzi’s second album for ECM, Once upon a Time—Far Away in the South. Over a long career recording with Keith Jarrett, Al Di Meola, and George Gruntz, Saluzzi has never wavered from the bandoneon as his primary instrument.

“I’m not a pianist,” Saluzzi insists in an email from Argentina. “I’m a bandoneonist and always have been. On the piano, we can sometimes have the same positions in both hands, but on the bandoneon each hand meets two different keyboards—one opening and another closing—four keyboards in all. This not only makes it more complex than other keyboard instruments but also makes it richer in sound possibilities beyond musical styles. Another great difference is that on the piano the note fades out earlier, whereas on the bandoneon the note can be sustained for longer.”

To the north in Brazil are two more accordion folk traditions: the urban choro music and the rural forró music. Vitor Gonçalves grew up playing piano in Rio de Janeiro, but when he immersed himself in Hermeto Pascoal’s music, he became entranced by the great Brazilian composer’s use of choro and forró influences. At 19, he bought an accordion and devoted himself to those sources. 


“Each instrument is unique in its qualities and physics,” he says, “so you have to explore them to express your music. You can’t just play the accordion like you were playing the piano or the organ. For instance, the accordion can be very expressive playing a slow beautiful melody by sustaining and shaping the notes somewhat as a violin or a vocal might. If you are playing a fast melody or solo, the sustains, accents, and articulation you use bears a lot of resemblance to what a saxophone can produce. In a comping situation, the accordion could provide a sustained pad, with crescendos and diminuendos, somewhat like a string section.”

Gil Goldstein. Photo by John Abbott.

When Gonçalves moved to New York a few years later, his background in both jazz piano and choro/forró accordion attracted him to bandleaders such as Anat Cohen, John Zorn, John Finbury, and Anthony Wilson, who were pursuing similar syntheses. He also formed a trio called Sanfonya Brasileira, whose 2018 self-titled album best showcases his squeezebox work.

“When I play with Anat,” Gonçalves explains, “the accordion provides a variety of colors. Sometimes it adds a folk-like sonority, like in the Klezmer-inspired tune ‘Anat’s Doina’ on the Tentet’s first record or in the song ‘Loro’ from the same record, where we feature a typical Brazilian forró section. At other times the accordion comes in to play a beautiful slow melody, as on a couple of original tracks of her yet-to-be-released album Quartetinho or an arrangement of a Dvorak piece from the same record where I play sort of a string pad in the accordion. There aren’t really any rules.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum from this folkloric approach is Andrea Parkins’ experimental approach to the accordion. She’d studied classical piano growing up and even spent two years at Berklee. But at 19 she took a break from music and pursued her interest in visual art. On a backpacking trip to London, however, she saw Carla Bley in concert. “Just seeing this woman with these fantastic compositions with all these timbral elements cheered me,” she remembers. “I decided I was going to go back to music and figure it out.” 


She started studying piano with Harvey Diamond and Connie Crothers, who’d both played with Lennie Tristano, but she was also playing with Boston punk-rock bands. One of her bandmates gave her a toy accordion, and she liked the sound of it, but struggled to make it heard amid the clamor of drums and guitars. So in 1989 she bought an Empire accordion with gold buttons and pink-and-white, pearl-finish keys. It’s still her main instrument.

“It was far too glitzy for my taste,” she confesses, “but I got it anyway. I quickly saw if I wanted to be heard in a rock band, I’d have to put a pick-up in it. Once I did that, the next obvious step was adding effects: a whammy pedal, a delay, and so on. The point is I always treated the accordion like an electric guitar. I wanted to take what I was learning from Harvey and transfer it to the accordion. If you’re a pianist moving to accordion, you have to learn the bass buttons, which are set up in circles of fifths. I had a lot of facility in the right hand, but I had to get my left hand together.”

By 1993, she had completed an MFA in visual art from Rutgers and was landing gigs at the Knitting Factory. One night after a show there, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin walked in and said, “I have an idea for a band with an accordion. Will you come to a rehearsal?” That turned into the trio of Eskelin, Parkins, and drummer Jim Black, which recorded nine albums and toured regularly.


“Ellery really had ears for what I was doing,” she says, “and we made some beautiful records. He recognized that what I was doing was different, and he wrote for that. Not only that, working with him pushed me technically. I had to hold down most of the bass parts in the music, often on accordion.”

These days Parkins is focused on what she calls “interactive electronics” and “electro-acoustic compositions.” Her 2021 album, Two Rooms from the Memory Palace, reimagines an installation piece that she premiered at the 2015 New York Electronic Art Festival. There she created a different soundscape for each of two adjacent rooms with the sound intentionally leaking from one to other. Her 2019 duo album with musical software designer Matthew Ostrowski, Elective Affinities, similarly manipulates sound, but many of the sounds start with her accordion. Parkins is thus following in the footsteps of such avant-garde accordionists as Pauline Oliveros and Cathie Travers. 

“The sound of the accordion is so particular,” Parkins says, “so rich in possibilities for texture, timber and sonic density. This is especially true with my addition of electronics, played through a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. This set up allows me to emphasize sonic details such as the overtones that emerge through the midrange and provide a beautiful low-end sound.”


That particular sound of the accordion can seem exotic, whether it’s treated by electronics or not. As so often happens in 21st century jazz, foreign influences are giving this American music new and useful materials to improvise upon. And the accordion has been an especially efficient conduit for these new sounds—whether they come from South Africa’s Tony Cedras, France’s Julien Labro, or Argentina’s Hector del Curto.

Now that the accordion is playing an increasingly prominent role in jazz, who gets the last laugh? “My family still sends me cartoons with jokes about accordions,” says Thomas, “but there are so many slamming accordion players now. Other musicians may make fun of the instrument, but now they’re hiring us.” 

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.