For decades France's superiority over America in the area of wine was unquestionable. America retaliated by sending its finest jazz artists to France, where critics and music lovers elevated them to the highest levels of esteem. In the post-cold war era, during which California wines have rivaled the best of France, it makes sense that French jazz musicians would rise to the challenge. And what instrument could be more French than the accordion?
Meet Richard Galliano. One of France's most popular jazz musicians, he has yet to make his mark in the United States. On his new CD French Touch, however, he makes an extremely compelling case for the accordion as a jazz instrument. Of course Americans like Art Van Damme and Angelo DiPippo already made that case more than 40 years ago, but while the art of jazz accordion has languished in the United States, European artists have continued to break new ground. Galliano is a true virtuoso, and more important, in his hands, the accordion's legitimacy as a jazz instrument is a nonissue. The accordion's bellows give it the expressive articulation and dynamics of a wind instrument, but its keyboard gives it the harmonic power of a piano or organ. Galliano's accordion has a wonderfully warm, rich tone, and his technique is awe-inspiring. His melodic lines are immaculately swinging and his chordal playing crackles with crispness. Galliano avoids the accordion's syrupy lushness and concentrates instead on its potential for variety and precision.
On this disc Galliano is joined by an all-star cast of French players, including the ubiquitous (in France) woodwind virtuoso Michel Portal and the legendary bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark. (Avant-garde fans take note: Both of these players are on some of Karlheinz Stockhausen's infamous Aus Den Sieben Tagen LPs.) The material is more or less smack-dab in the middle of the road, though enriched by a healthy dose of South American influences, including one piece by Brazilian multi-instrumental mad genius Hermeto Pascoal, and a very Piazzolla-ish tango. Head-solo-head arrangements dominate, and in general, Galliano is not pushing the envelope as a composer. His pieces serve one important purpose: They provide a vehicle for his stunning solos.
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Nonetheless this is a charming and eminently listenable disc of straight-ahead jazz played with conviction and a frightening level of skill. The phrase "French touch" brings to mind the insouciant swing of Django Reinhardt and the innovations of players such as Martial Solal and Michel Petrucciani. Galliano is an apt successor to that legacy. Fans of mainstream jazz and lovers of accordion music (I know you're out there) should seek out this one.