Richard Galliano

Richard Galliano’s new album is rightly titled Sentimentale, but it’s also a vigorous display of instrumental prowess. For the world’s greatest living accordionist, it signals a triumphant return to his jazz wheelhouse.

Galliano gained his earliest renown in French jazz circles in the 1970s, but since then he has moved all over the musical map. In the early ’90s he helped revive the old French folk style of bal-musette, bringing it back into public consciousness while spicing it with an added improvisational element. On recent Deutsche Grammophon albums, he’s made unprecedented explorations into classical accordion playing, taking on works by Vivaldi and Bach.

Yet you can’t take the jazz out of the boy. On the bright and engaging Sentimentale, Galliano is back to playing the music that first captured his imagination. For the first time, the 63-year-old superstar is finally recording for a U.S. jazz label, Resonance Records.

Sentimentale puts Galliano’s lyrical sensitivity front and center. This is a lively and spirited collection of performances, with melodies from across cultures, from Coltrane’s “Naima” to the Brazilian standard “Verbos Do Amor” to a couple of Galliano originals that emit their own timeless mystique. He benefits here from the help of a glove-tight ensemble, featuring premier improvisers from around the world: Tamir Hendelman on piano, Anthony Wilson on guitar, Carlitos Del Puerto on bass and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums.

Over the course of 11 tracks, Hendelman’s masterful arrangements allow Galliano’s shimmering and fulsome accordion sound to take prominence while seeming to anchor the band, not tip its scales. The arrangements hold a tight center while moving between swing and subtle modern jazz rhythms, and the band members react deftly to Galliano’s gentle inflections.

Galliano has always vested a dual power in his instrument: He treats it with delicacy, drawing out a clear and bead-like sound while almost never allowing the stray dissonances that can seem to define most accordion playing. But at the same time, his sound is robust—a full breath, not a light breeze.

“He’s the greatest, I think, that ever played his instrument,” says producer George Klabin, who runs Resonance Records. It was Klabin’s idea to record a CD of Galliano performing what he calls “the great melodies” of the world. “Galliano is probably among the most versatile that ever played any instrument, but more than anything, he’s a stellar melodist.”

The son of an Italian-born accordion teacher, Galliano showed prowess at a very early age when growing up in Cannes. At 14, he fell in love with jazz after he heard Clifford Brown’s declarative rhythms and zesty melodic inventions. By his mid-20s he was working in Paris as an arranger, composer and studio musician, backing up the likes of Charles Aznavour and Juliette Gréco and playing on film scores. But Galliano’s passion for jazz remained paramount, and he collaborated with many of the American musicians who passed through France. From the early 1980s, he performed and recorded with legends like Chet BakerRon Carter and Toots Thielemans. Increasingly seen as France’s jazz ambassador, in 1988 he helped to found the Nuis de Nacre festival in Tulle, and became its artistic director. The accordion-specific celebration continues through today.

But around that time, his idol, the Argentine bandoneon eminence and tango composer Astor Piazzola, encouraged Galliano to look deeper into the musical heritage of his instrument—and his homeland. Galliano focused on bal-musette, a popular music from 19th-century France that had originated on other instruments but was adopted (and indelibly altered) by accordion players.  In 1991, he released his famed New Musette album, which featured former Bud Powell associate Pierre Michelot on bass and contributed to Galliano’s winning the Académie du Jazz’s Django Reinhardt Prize for French musician of the year in 1993.  Since then, Galliano has continued to mine the accordion’s history, recording tributes to Piazzola and also exploring the instrument’s role in Italian culture.

The idea for making Sentimentale arose during another Resonance recording session for the violinist Christian Howes’ Southern Exposure, released last year. “Galliano felt so comfortable, and played great, so I said, ‘Hey, you want to do a record on our label?’” Klabin remembers. For Sentimentale, “I wanted to surround him with superb musicians so that we would create magic. And I think that happened.”

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