An Exquisite Journey Held in His Hands: “Castelfidardo” from Jonny Kerry

Releasing December 17, the new CD “Castelfidardo” by jazz accordionist Jonny Kerry is more than what you think, no matter what you’ve heard from the instrument thus far. (The title refers to the Italian town where accordions are famously crafted.) In Kerry’s capable and loving hands, the accordion sings with joy for life whether paired with acoustic guitar, violin or even a bold red. His touch is light, fast and precise, and this album has plenty of bandwidth to explore different moods and destinations. Take the bouncy and Latin-inspired track “For Sephora,” where Kerry’s runs and trills decorate the song to perfection; or the nimble “Lockdown” where he can bend to the blues or coax stunning arpeggios, with a notably remarkable solo on violin. He lends honeyed vocals to the strummed love ditty “After You’ve Gone” which flies off the handle in tempo, band whipping up to a bittersweet conclusion. Slightly more laid back, “Exactly Like You” is a song of hope delivered like an invitation to the object of his affection. Whether Kerry sings or plays or both, it’s a treat because he’s obviously comfortable with any musical expression and has tone and rhythm well within his artistic control to take you along.    

When did you first hear the accordion and what did you think of it?

The first time I heard an accordion was when my grandad bought me one from an antique shop. It was made around the 1920s and was hand-painted so it looked really nice. I loved how different it was and the unique sound. It was through YouTube that I heard how it sounds when played properly. 

When did you take it up? What was your early training like (also vocals)?

I was about 16 or 17 when I decided to start practicing the accordion. I became friends with French students who were studying guitar- and violin-making in a town called Newark, UK. I took my first accordion along to the jam nights and started learning to play gypsy jazz music. My brother started playing it around the same time so we regularly played together.

I had no formal lessons on the accordion and taught myself by reading books and transcribing other players. I have always sung but had never taken it seriously. Over the last few years I have been taking regular lessons with a vocal coach which has helped a lot. 

When did you first play jazz on it?

I started playing jazz from the start, the first genre being gypsy jazz. I soon discovered that there are more jazz accordionists than you think. Through YouTube, I had access to all these players’ recordings to learn from such as Ernie Felice, Art Van Damme, Richard Galliano, Frank Marocco, Joe Mooney, etc.

What are the technical demands of the instrument that are different from other instruments?

Every instrument has its challenges, but for me the challenge is getting the accordion to sound controlled and professional. For example, I could sit down and play a chord on the piano and let it ring out with the sustain pedal. This sounds nice and controlled. But with the accordion, there is a lot more technique required. The bellows are everything and require years of practice to even be able to play a single note and hold it with vibrato and control. It makes it even harder to control the bellows when you are playing the bass and right-hand chords and melodies. 

Why isn’t the accordion thought of in terms of jazz? What does the groove add to a jazz ensemble?

I think the accordion fits very well in jazz but there aren’t many jazz accordionists around. For example, in the UK I could count the jazz accordionists on one hand. Jazz pianists, however, there are hundreds. The accordion’s role in the band is the same as the piano. 

What were the biggest developments in the instrument over 200 years?

The biggest developments have been the cassotto chamber, which is a small wooden chamber inside the accordion that the reeds send the sound through. This smooths out the sound of the instrument, making it sound more like a clarinet which works well for jazz and classical music. Another big development is the keyboard, making it easy to play. 

How do you take care of your instrument?

The Accordion can’t take much bashing around due to all the small parts and the reeds being held in by beeswax, so I’m always careful with it and carry it around in a padded bag. I have the instrument tuned around every four years. To do this I go to the town of Castelfidardo in Italy, back to the company that made it. The model I play is called the Victoria.

What was the best part of producing “Castelfidardo”? What was the most challenging?

Being in the studio with amazing musicians creating the music and hearing it back. The most challenging part was organizing everyone, keeping the energy in the studio and making sure it all went smoothly, as well as trying to perform my best each day. 

Do the tracks tell a story together?

The tracks do, individually; and the track order was carefully put together. This is why I am releasing the album in vinyl form, so the listener hears the whole album the way I intended it to be heard. 

Favorite instrumentation that goes with accordion in jazz?

I fell in love with the gypsy jazz genre made famous by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, so for me, guitar, double bass, violin and clarinet work perfectly with the accordion sound.

Has performing opened up near you and what gigs do you have planned or are about to plan?

Luckily, gigs are coming back, I have regular concerts booked and am planning a UK tour in a year or so.

Favorite part of being a musician?

The ability to do what I love every day. I love everything about being a musician, the practice, the playing with other instruments, composing, recording and the business side of things such as marketing. 

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Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2021 Debbie Burke

From blogger/author Debbie Burke

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