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18 April, 2011  ▪  Viachek Kryshtofovych

The adventures of an accordion

The unhurried story of one musical virtuoso

“When I first met Astor Piazzolla, I gave him my recordings. He listened to them and said: You play like an Argentinean. On second thought, he added: No, like an Italian.” Smiling, Richard Galliano says proudly: “The music I am playing is the melos of my land and my roots — the Mediterranean and Paris. But I also absorb other music: I am influenced by both classical music and jazz.”

This legendary Frenchman of Italian origin does a miraculous job of harmoniously combining the music of various cultures. He will soon perform for the second time in Kyiv, this time with Tangaria Quartet.


The pieces that Galliano composes and performs have nothing to do with the contemporary, indiscriminate but “progressive” timeline. This music could have been played 70 years ago and will be played 70 years from now. Regardless of how successful another one of his albums or projects turns out, Galliano offers magnificent, tasteful therapy against the pursuit of something like the new iPad or the latest album released by some trendy band. At the same time, Galliano is an utterly contemporary musician — for a long time now he has been doing things with his instrument that few people dare try even today.

Although this instrument carries the burden of cultural connotations, Galliano and his admirers are not too concerned about the “folk simplicity” of the accordion. This is not a trite, overused folk instrument but a miniature organ.

“Folklore music is the deepest and most beautiful kind, because its origins are in the Earth itself and in people’s traditions and hearts. The accordion is the main instrument to all performers of folk music. There is also the guitar and the violin, while the rest are just fashion: people love them and then forget them. I hope I have succeeded in rehabilitating the accordion in the art of music. What I have always wanted to do and dreamed about doing as a teenager is to pull down the wall between jazz and popular music which is performed on the accordion in France. Others did it before me, but it was up in the air. I believe I have succeeded in achieving this without ruining the roots specific to accordion music,” Galliano says.

In simple terms, Galliano is famous for performing and composing music in such genres as jazz, tango and musette, or more exactly new musette, which he in fact invented in an effort to breathe new lease into a seemingly outdated French style. If we take stock of the music that shaped him in an undiluted fashion, the list will be long indeed: Johann Sebastian Bach, Frédéric Chopin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Antonio Vivaldi, Astor Piazzolla, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Clifford Brown, John Coltraine, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorious, Thelonius Monk, Joe Zawinul, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Rosolino, Édith Piaf, Elish Regina, etc. What is common among them all? The answer is: Only love and beauty.

This is a list that music buffs can envy and a range that not many musicians can absorb. Galliano’s new album features Bach’s music played by a chamber orchestra and himself on the accordion and bandoneon - an instrument that is mostly associated with tango. Usually Galliano performs Bach; however, with Tangaria - a string and almost academic quartet - he will probably play something else. Though, you never know… “I play the music I love, music filled with color, feeling and emotion,” Galliano says.


Galliano is no doubt aware of his advantages, but the important thing is how he carries himself. The most famous ad-libbing accordionist turns out to be a fairly modest person. One gets the impression that he enjoys speaking about his family more than himself. He utters the phrase “I’m a grandpa.” with some kind of Italian pride. A look at his biography will reveal that in the late 1970s he was already playing with celebrated American jazzmen, but started releasing his own albums only at a mature age — not driven by ambition but simply starting when the time was right.

Writing about Galliano can sometime be boring, as everything in his life is so balanced: he is a musician, husband, father, grandfather, and son — just like in a nice French-Italian remake of a Hollywood movie (although it is usually the other way around in the film industry). His first teacher, beginning at the age of four, was his father Lucien, while one of his contemporary teachers is, evidently, his grandson Julien. His wife provides constant support. Galliano has escaped the curse of most artists when creative pursuits enter into conflict with family life. “I have never separated artistic life from family life — one feeds the other. Our times are complicated, if not chaotic, and I would want my grandchildren to have a more peaceful future.”

When Galliano plays, you notice that he is not struggling with his instrument, on the contrary he is talking to it without trying to impress you by his technique or putting on a show. He seems to recede into the background when he plays, which invites the question about his relationship with the accordion. “It is a part of my body and my soul,” says the musician pithily. In the realm of music improvisation he is uncomfortably often called the world’s best, or most famous, accordionist. He is somewhat irked by this talk: “Above all, I don’t think I’m the best accordionist in the world. I simply live in my time: I am Galliano. When you walk into a Paris CD store where there is a multitude of disks and see your own among them, you realize that in this situation the main thing is to be, to exist. The question is not whether you are the best or not — everyone has his advantages and flaws. The main thing is to be, here and now.”


Let’s go back to 2007. A French music soiree in New York in a large hotel hall, three blocks away from Times Square. Unforgettable impressions from the way the French, including Michel Legrand and Richard Galliano, played something timeless for a snobbish, progressive New York audience. “This concert was a sheer improvisation,” says Galliano.

He is one of very few Europeans who through their own language have succeeded in conquering the American improvised music market in one way or another. Typically, it works the other way around with Americans hitting it big in Europe where the language of their music is appreciated even more than home. It would seem that the American jazz audience does not fully grasp what Galliano does, but he regularly tours the USA. “I prefer to play my own works in order to interact with the audience better. American listeners are not more complicated than others; they are simply a bit more interested in something original.”

The year 2008. The Jazz Koktebel festival. Galliano and the Tangaria Quartet. They played almost the same program as in their famed DVD recording of the their Live in Marciac concert. However, it would be safe to assume that 99% of the audience hardly remembers what was played. This has to do with the character and atmosphere of the Koktebel festival: the sea, good mood, alcohol and other substances do not help focus the audience’s attention on the music which is best performed in a small concert hall rather than on a large open stage. At any rate, what they played was so-called new tango which bears marks of maestro Galliano’s signature style. This is what Kyiv is set to be treated to.

Coming back to Galliano’s teaming up with Tangaria Quartet, it is even hard to put one’s finger on what it actually is: a window into tango music or into Galliano’s very personality. The latter is more likely, because everything this virtuoso (who was blessed by no other than Piazzolla) does is utterly individual, as well as emotional and warm, passionate and melancholic at the same time.

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