Squeezing Out Sparks

We'll always have Paris: Refined dance band Café Accordion Orchestra
Courtesy of Cafe Accordion Orchestra

How is it that the French musette--a pre-WWII pop music with rustic roots and a prototypical audience of knife-wielding proletarians--sounds to contemporary American ears like the very essence of elegant sophistication? Well, Bubba, it might have something to do with Parisians perfecting Gallic cool while we were busy slaughtering buffalo and burning witches at the stake.

Or not. A perhaps more cogent explanation was offered by Dan Newton of the Café Accordion Orchestra, one of a handful of outfits in the U.S. with a repertoire of musette tunes. Spotted not far from his St. Paul headquarters, Newton, with his unassuming manner and patch of chin-hair looked like...well, like a Midwestern roots-music obsessive. Over black coffee, Newton (sans béret, sans Gitanes) explained the development of Continental folk music. Following a wave of immigration from the rural French Auvergne region to Paris, the hicks from the sticks brought with them the musette dance--named after an early precursor to the accordion that was central to the music.

"And," Newton pointed out, "a lot of them opened coffee shops."

Enter the phonograph and American jazz--especially swing records--and French pop music commenced the heady days of the Paris Hot Club exemplified by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Still the musette remained the staple of bars and cafés; it would take decades of cultural iconography (especially in French film exported to the U.S.) before its earthy sophistication would be equated with Parisian refinement. As Newton pointed out, with obvious relish, this was music for dockworkers, day laborers, and immigrants. "Low-class stuff," Newton added. "The image was of guys with a bottle in one pocket and a knife in the other."

The new Café Accordion Orchestra release, Le Disque Français, focuses on this prewar French pop sound--with the notable exception of a mildly unhinged run at Serge Gainsbourg's disco mutation "Chez les Yé Yé"--music that reflected rustic tradition colliding with big-city life. The disc grants the smoldering, less-is-more approach of Newton's ensemble a sedate but notably sparkling sonic space in which to operate. It's a laid-back collection of surprising variety, from the Gypsy-tinged accordion workout "Indifférence" to the cheeky foxtrot "C'est si bon."

The Orchestra (a five-piece in its full lineup) gigs constantly in a variety of personnel combinations, with an arsenal of styles that ranges from swing to polka, from Latin rhythms back to today's home base of the musette. The scope of this stuff reflects Newton's own far-ranging expertise in roots music--on his own, he's recorded discs of Cajun, blues, and zydeco. He took up the accordion in the late '70s, when he was playing piano in a country-swing band in his native Lincoln, Nebraska, and was frustrated by venues that lacked serviceable keyboards. A friend offered him a stray accordion, accurately noting that it at least possessed keys. More than a quarter-century later, Newton conducts business under the name "Daddy Squeeze."

In approaching such an artist, one could be forgiven for sniffing the air for a tinge of stuffy curatorial purism or poker-faced pedantry. Newton and the Orchestra keep things blessedly loose, though, playing with restrained precision and viewing themselves as essentially a dance band.

A concert last weekend at the Millennium Hotel, as part of the Twin Cities Hot Summer Jazz Festival, saw the Orchestra work up a head of steam on the Duke Ellington rarity "Accordion Joe" and Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose." While the show started with an audience numbering less than a dozen (it was noon, and raining), the hotel lobby began to fill and by show's close the crowd was at least 60--many of whom seemed to have wandered by and end up staying until the gig's conclusion. While the Orchestra lacks a single distinctive vocalist (Newton tackles singing duties on a couple of songs, as does guitarist Brian Barnes and mandolin/fiddle player Eric Mohring), they're an ace instrumental unit with a dynamic range that exceeds their understated recordings.

Café Accordion Orchestra's sound insinuates something familiar while exposing the listener to unforeseen musical linkages between the Continent and the U.S. of A. The musette can be deeply moving, as well as feckless and lighthearted; at its best, it evokes the heart of the bumpkin turned loose in a complex world. It's also a multi-use music--for some, it's for dancing, for others it's folk art, and there are probably those who simply hear the clichés in its smooth surface and treat it as sonic wallpaper. Newton is aware of this; he's made two CDs of Cajun music for the Lifescapes label that are ideal for restaurants and the home-relaxation market. To Newton, it all seems to be simply music, and his combo plays it wherever they can.

"We had two shows in a 24-hour period one time," he said. "One was at Lincoln Center in New York City. The next was at a nursing home in St. Louis Park."

Such are the ineffable mysteries of the musette.

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