Jazz Concert and Album Review: Vincent Peirani and Emile Parisien — Bringing Culture to the Colonies

By Steve Provizer

The communication between Vincent Peirani’s accordion and Emile Parisien’s soprano sax was effortless, empathetic, and flawless.

A recent concert at the Shaolin Liu in Rockport by the duo Vincent Peirani (accordion) and Emile Parisien (soprano sax) lifted the spirits and stirred the soul. These two Frenchmen played a program of tango music and, though this music is not “of their culture,” the duo demonstrated that probing musical minds, collaborative sensitivity, and technical virtuosity sometimes render moot any question of “cultural appropriation.”

The concert’s repertoire was drawn from the duo’s recent album Abrazo (Embrace) and this review will talk about both the concert and the album.

This was the duo’s first show in the U.S., though they have performed over 600 concerts together. The communication between them was effortless, empathetic, and flawless. I’m someone who is sensitive to various types of free playing. In the case of this duo, it is sometimes difficult to know whether the playing is free or very highly arranged. This is a testament to the level of their communication and to the ease with which they flow in and out of these ambiguous sections. They are perfectly attuned to each other’s musical movements and the communication between them is effortless and empathetic. There is also a perfect synchronicity in the unison sections; they sounded as one voice as they take on these highly complex lines, often at break-neck tempos.

41-year-old accordionist Peirani has won many international awards and there seem to be few genres that he hasn’t explored. He plays a full-size accordion, and fully delineates its wide sonic palette. Soprano sax player Parisien, who is 39, has also played in a variety of styles. Unlike other sax players, he sticks to the soprano. I tend not to be that much of a soprano fan. For decades, it was a fairly rare instrument until Coltrane opened up the gates with “My Favorite Things” in 1961 and it became as ubiquitous as the alto or tenor. Unfortunately, the instrument usually doesn’t get the care and feeding necessary to bring out its potential. Happily, Parisien’s concentration on the horn has paid off. He displays complete control of the instrument and can find a vibrato and tone that works for any given musical moment — from a bluesy howl to a classical purr. I would characterize his soloing as, at times, “jazz,” while on occasion it can sound Baroque, akin to a harpsichordist improvising to a figured bass.

As noted, the repertoire of the album and concert is tango (writ large). They perform several compositions by Astor Piazzolla. Their Piazzolla cover, “Deus Xango,” was preceded by two jazz recordings made in the mid -’70s: Astor Piazzolla and Gerry Mulligan with a chamber orchestra; and a jazz fusion recording featuring Piazzolla with Larry Coryell. The duo also plays “A Bebernos Los Vientos” (To Drink the Winds) by Argentinian composer-guitarist Tomás Gubitsch. For those who haven’t explored the tango — as it was expanded by Piazzolla and Gubitsch — this development of the form is deep and fascinating. It is a very far cry from “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

Vincent Peirani and Emile Parisien Photo: FranceRocks

The duo’s repertoire includes an American foray into exoterica called “Temptation,” written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed in 1933 (not Xavier Cugat, as the album credits say). The tune has the kind of bones that allow it to be easily transmogrified into a modern tango. They also play “The Crave,” by Jelly Roll Morton, which may seem an odd vehicle for the duo but, like many of Morton’s tunes, it features what Morton called the “Spanish Tinge.” Peirani and Parisien put the song through multiple changes — riffs extracted and altered, faster tempo, tango replacning some of the raggy elements. Despite the transformations, the tune remains evocative of Morton.

As an encore Peirani and Parisien played Kate Bush’s “Army Dreamers.” I wasn’t impressed with the tune when I heard it on Abrazo. Probably for several reasons — apart from the performance itself — the tune worked a lot better in the concert setting. The warmth of the sound in the Shaolin Liu helped, particularly the deep accordion bass resonance, as did the closeness that the audience members felt toward the musicians after their engaging performance.

There is generally an upgrade in seeing live what you’ve only heard on record and watching these kinetic, engaging performers added a great deal to the experience of listening to the music. Both are unselfconscious about their movements and facial expressions during performance: an overflow of energy was apt to cause either one to throw a leg into the air, grimace, grunt or contort their bodies. Nothing histrionic about it; it was in complete accord with the flow of the music.

Are there aspects of their collaboration that I feel don’t completely work? Yes. For one thing, I wish more space had been left for Peirani to explore slow tempi so that the accordion’s potential as a purveyor of melancholy and longing could be more completely explored. Secondly, the soloing of the soprano sax was impeccable — within the bounds laid out. However, these parameters rarely change. The abundance of minor keys and certain chord changes, figured bass backgrounds as well as ostinatos too often push the solos in a familiar direction.

The accordion was fairly ubiquitous in mid-century America — both Elvis and John Lennon played the instrument before starting the guitar. But the accordion went into a steep decline, to the extent that anyone under the age of 60 wouldn’t be caught dead playing “Lady of Spain” or the “Beer Barrel Polka.” In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a resurgence, thanks to a wide range of practitioners, from Clifton Chenier’s zydeco squeezebox to Astor Piazzolla’s tango bandoneon and alt rock players like Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies. In Vincent Peirani we have a musician who seems to be a culminating figure of sorts — able to move through various styles with an accomplished grace. With soprano sax player Emile Parisien he has found a compatible — even symbiotic — partner to explore the tango. It’s been a long time since we thought of Continentals bringing culture to the Colonies, but credit where credit is due.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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