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What’s on Your Playlist: Ben Rosenblum

Born and raised in New York City, rising 27–year–old pianist/composer/accordionist Ben Rosenblum is known for his narrative approach to the piano, sensitive musicianship, and unique compositional voice. A 2016 graduate of the Columbia–Juilliard dual program, Rosenblum majored in philosophy at Columbia and founded the Columbia Jazz House. He’s received numerous awards from ASCAP and DownBeat, and was named finalist in both the American Jazz Pianist Competition and the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition.

His debut album received wide acclaim and now Rosenblum’s 2020 sextet release Kites and Strings furthers his mission of integrating the accordion into the jazz tradition. Featuring Rosenblum’s original jazz tunes with rock and klezmer, Latin American rhythms, and Bulgarian harmonies, Kites and Strings presents vivid, bracing music, and establishes Rosenblum as one of a handful of players equally virtuosic on piano and accordion.

The accordion is often overlooked and under–appreciated in jazz. While the instrument enjoys prestige in many countries – Brazil, most European nations, Mexico, and many others – in the United States, the accordion is deemed by some to be lacking versatility, an instrument best suited to folkloric music and not to the complexities of jazz harmony. In the past few decades, this undeserved reputation has been challenged. The music of legendary accordionists outside the United States is becoming popularized, and American audiences are discovering the incredible diversity of music in the accordion repertoire. Meanwhile, videos of previous generations of American jazz accordionists have been made available online, and high–profile jazz composers like Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck are incorporating the instrument into their writing.

Below are 10 recordings that make me particularly excited to be a jazz accordionist. This list features many of the accordionists who inspired me to begin studying the instrument (I am a jazz pianist by training) and is thus personal to my musical journey on the instrument. It is not comprehensive, and is missing some of the most famous jazz accordionists, such as Art Van Damme, Leon Sash, and Alice Hall, all of whom are certainly worth exploring. I made the decision to include mostly music that falls within the broader world of jazz harmony. This unfortunately excludes some of my favorite accordion recordings: the incredible work of Bulgarian folk accordionists Peter Ralchev and Ivan Milev, the Irish reels and jigs of Joe Derrane or Jimmy Keane, and the Balkan magic of NYC–based accordionist Peter Stan. I highly encourage anyone interested in the instrument to dig into their work. And while Astor Piazzolla’s Tango: Zero Hour is near the top of my list of favorite albums, I decided not to include it, respecting the fact that Piazzolla plays bandoneon, not accordion. – Ben Rosenblum

1. Toninho Ferragutti and Bebê Kramer – “Choro Esperança” from Como Manda O Figurino

My journey on accordion began with Brazilian music. I studied with an incredible accordionist from Brazil named Vitor Gonçalves – featured later in the playlist – who introduced me to the instrument through the world of choro, forró, and samba. Toninho Ferragutti and Bebê Kramer’s two accordion duo album was one of the first recommendations Vitor made to me. It has since become one of my absolute favorite albums, and usually the first album I recommend to anyone with a pre–existing notion of the limitations of the instrument. Both musicians are virtuosic, but it is the expressive, voice-like quality of every melodic statement that makes this album special. Ferragutti and Kramer’s beautiful orchestrations showcase the full timbral range of the accordion, as the two trade phrases using the wide variety of different reed combinations to create a brilliant palette of musical colors. Perhaps no track exhibits this better than “Choro Esperança,” a haunting original by Kramer with gorgeous counterpoint and dynamic melodic interpretation between the two accordionists.

2. Simone Zanchini and Frank Marocco – “Yesterdays” from Be–Bop Buffet

When I think about swing feel on the accordion, the first name that comes to mind is Frank Marocco. Marocco accents his ideas like a horn player and his language is immersed in bebop vocabulary. He plays full chords in his lines like many accordionists, but never loses his light touch. Simone Zanchini has a delightfully contrasting style that fits beautifully with Marocco’s, and the informal energy of the recording makes the interaction the central focus. I particularly love listening to Marocco’s incredibly supportive accompaniment behind Zanchini’s solos. Their 6/8 treatment of “Yesterdays” is a standout track for me. For a more traditional 4/4 standard, “Home Again” is another favorite. Also highly recommended is the full concert video of Marocco in Seattle which is available on Petosa Accordions’ YouTube channel. Marocco’s version of “Cheek to Cheek” around the 10-minute mark is a highlight, but the whole concert ranks among my favorite accordion recordings.

3. Richard Galliano – “L’insidieuse” from Ruby My Dear

Very few jazz accordionists have done as much to popularize the instrument internationally as Richard Galliano, who boasts an active career of over 50 years collaborating with many of the most famous jazz musicians in the United States and Europe. This 2005 live recording with Larry Grenadier on bass and Clarence Penn on drums is a beautiful entry in the particularly under-served category of accordion trio. I especially enjoy the second track, “L’insidieuse,” which sees Galliano and the trio exploring the intersection of jazz improvisation with the musette sound native to Galliano’s home country of France. Galliano is one of the most versatile jazz accordionists in history, and his extensive discography is well worth exploring.

4. Dominguinhos, Sivuca and Oswaldinho – “Feira de Mangaio” from Cada um Belisca um Pouco

The Brazilian accordion tradition is one of the richest in the world, and this album features three of its greatest legends performing classics from the forró repertoire. All three have multiple albums under their own names that rank among my favorites, but this recording serves as a fantastic introduction into the world of forró, with its deep rhythmic feel and its beautiful lyricism. Although decidedly on the “folk music” side of things, there is plenty of gorgeous improvisation throughout the album – including on the track I chose, “Feira de Mangaio” – and deep harmonic intricacy in tunes like Dominguinhos’ “Nilopolitano.” It would be very easy to fill my whole list with Brazilian music. For further listening, check out the live concert recording of Sivuca with Hermeto Pascoal, the incredible work of Mestrinho, the Southern Brazilian accordion sound of Luiz Carlos Borges or Luciano Maia, or the origins of the forró tradition in Luiz Gonzaga.

5. Jimmy Rosenberg and Stian Carstensen – “I Found a New Baby” from Rose Room

The accordion is perhaps less surprising to many jazz listeners in the context of the “trad jazz” or “Hot Club” scenes, which are often associated with the French jazz movement centered around figures like Django Reinhardt. This particular album is one of my favorite examples of the accordion in this scene, featuring the incredible virtuosity of Dutch Sinto-Romani guitarist Jimmy Rosenberg and Norwegian accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen. The track I selected, “I Found A New Baby,” leans more towards the traditional fireworks of the Django scene, showcasing the accordion’s unique affinity for playing rapid sequences of chords amidst single note lines.

6. Chris Cheek and Victor Prieto – “Rollo Coaster” from Rollo Coaster

Victor Prieto has a distinct and engaging approach to jazz accordion that makes him very recognizable. His unique set of influences, which go beyond jazz to include Latin and Celtic music as well as Tuvan singing, lead him to a compositional style that is at times thickly textured and percussive, but always sensitive and melodic. On this album with reeds player Chris Cheek, the music is exposed and spare, and one can clearly hear the characteristic musical choices that make Victor Prieto so special. A tune like “Bebê” showcases Prieto’s rhythmic momentum as well as his signature poly–chord technique, whereas “Rollo Coaster” demonstrates his ability to leave space in beautiful ways while maintaining the musical foundations of the tune.

7. SanfoNYa Brasileira – “Mais uma Valsa” from SanfoNYa Brasileira

I first heard Vitor Gonçalves on piano, and was immediately blown away by his incredibly unique and effortlessly advanced harmonic concept. Later, when I heard him translate this sound seamlessly to the accordion, it was clear to me that I wanted to study with him. Vitor continually expands my conception of what is possible on the accordion – his ability to achieve beautiful counterpoint between the two hands, his sensitivity in expressing a melody and the complexity of his chordal structures. As a pianist who later picked up accordion, I have always set Vitor as my standard for accomplishing a unified but distinctive sound on the two instruments. SanfoNYa Brasileira, an album Vitor co-led with Eduardo Belo on bass and Vanderlei Pereira on drums, is another excellent entry into the collection of accordion trio recordings. The addition of Steve Wilson’s saxophone for Vitor’s composition, “Mais uma Valsa,” is a particularly special moment.

8. Michael Bisio – “AM” from Accortet

Around the time I was beginning to write and arrange for my new sextet, Nebula (which features the accordion prominently as a “horn” in the horn section), I went to attend a concert by bassist Michael Bisio’s “Accortet,” featuring Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Art Bailey on accordion, and Michael Wimberly on drums. Bisio’s expert writing for the quartet, and the blend between Bailey and Knuffke, validated my beliefs about the potential of pairing accordion with more traditional horns in a jazz setting. I loved the fullness of the accordion sound combined with the sharper attack of the trumpet. Together with Bisio and Wimberly’s warm accompaniment, the whole concert felt full and rich, even in the sparsest moments. The first track of Bisio’s Acortet album, “AM,” exhibits these qualities, and simultaneously confirms that the accordion can sound perfectly in place soloing in the context of a more modern swing feel.

9. John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet – “The Cloud of Unknowing” from I, Claudia

As with many bandleaders on this list, John Hollenbeck brings a wealth of diverse, unusual influences to his composition, leading to a unique sound that has earned him widespread acclaim. Among his most enduring projects is the Claudia Quintet, featuring Ted Reichman on accordion and Matt Moran on vibraphone, alongside Chris Speed on reeds and Drew Gress on bass. The Claudia Quintet albums are a constant sonic exploration, leaning into minimalist classical techniques and rock centered grooves to create layers of timbres and polyrhythms that build and develop motivically. It is difficult for me to pick one track, as every song is its own distinct concept that finds new methods of blending the group’s different elements in intriguing, ear-catching ways. “The Cloud of Unknowing” is a great starting point, as each player enters in turn, constructing the foundation of the group sound in stages until the groove is established Even in a support role, the musical color of the accordion is pervasive and central to the landscape of the vibraphone solo.

10. Maria Schneider – “Cerulean Skies” from Sky Blue

I end this list with perhaps my favorite Maria Schneider track, “Cerulean Skies.” I first saw the Maria Schneider Orchestra when I was in high school. It was my first experience hearing accordion in a jazz context. The sound immediately captivated me, and eventually led to my pursuing the accordion more seriously. Gary Versace is one of the most musical, sensitive, and supportive players I know. He seems to know how to get in at just the right moments with melodic ideas that are unexpected but somehow fit the context perfectly. On tracks like “Cerulean Skies,” Schneider gives him space to create gorgeous soundscapes with the different timbral possibilities of the instrument. Both in his solos and in his accompaniments, he blends with the orchestra beautifully and provides a satisfying sonic contrast to the horn sections. I feel a deep gratitude to Schneider and Versace for providing my first introduction to jazz accordion, and many years later, I still feel that Schneider integrates the instrument into her writing as well as anyone.

The Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project’s newest album, Kites and Strings, was released on October 16, 2020. www.benrosenblummusic.com

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