(This article has been translated from the original in French).
I don’t know what attracted me, but I bought myself an accordion for the first time almost twenty years ago. I bought a used accordion, thinking to myself that I finally had a portable acoustic piano. The piano had long been my main instrument, and for me the accordion became an instrument that was easy to bring to improvisation evenings, or ‘jams’.
But I never would have expected an instrument to enchant me so much. I have tried other instruments in my life, but the piano always remained my preferred instrument. And then, with the dimension of breath resonating against my body, I was bewitched! Over time, I put as much time into discovering and practicing the accordion as I did the piano. I have officially adopted a second main instrument.
My medium of musical creation is jazz and world music. In record stores, I was now looking for references in these musical styles on the accordion. Not that easy. At first I found records of the great Astor Piazolla. And in large cities, and especially during my tours in France, I discovered more: Richard Galliano, Daniel Mille, and accordionists playing with bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons: Jean-Louis Matinier and David Venitucci. From there, the discoveries and my collection kept on growing.
The fact remains that I am self-taught on the accordion. I tried to emulate my references. But how complex is the accordion! The famous left side of the instrument is a unique system, combining bass notes and keys that play different types of chords. And in addition to that, this side also controls the bellows. The instrument offers the richness of playing a melody and accompanying oneself at the same time. But all these elements share a single breath. A real challenge as one tries to put one’s emotions to music.
I wanted so much to be coached on this instrument. While touring, I was fortunate to meet Norbert Pignol, a French diatonic accordionist. We had the chance to meet a few times. He became a good friend, and he will always be a mentor to me. But although there are technical similarities between the diatonic accordion and the chromatic one – which I play – there are still many differences. The style and balance of the instruments are very different. When I discovered Jelena Milojevic during her Jeunesses Musicales tour in the Atlantic, I paid for my first accordion lesson. For two hours, Jelena analyzed my style, and brought many things to my attention, the great majority of which required major revisions of my technique. That’s when I realized I had so much to learn in order to better play my instrument.
Residency, or Discovery #2
It happens that in 2014, I discovered a school in France through the Internet, the CNIMA Jacques-Mornet, just for the accordion. An internationally acclaimed school where accordionists of all kinds and calibers were playing. To fit their unique pedagogical philosophy, their curriculum offered five one-on-one classes, with four different teachers, every week! What’s more, the instruction is tailored according to the level and needs of the student. There could be nothing better for a highly efficient learning experience. When I found a French jazzman and accordionist online who in an interview cited his time at CNIMA as a turning point for him, I was won over.
From that moment, I began to communicate with the CNIMA. I offered to compose and arrange pieces for their students. This project would teach me how to compose correctly for accordion, how to exploit its various effects and sounds, as well as to explore the sound combinations offered by an accordion ensemble. The school accepted my proposal, and together we established the guidelines for a clear and comprehensive residency. But the great kick-off for this project was the financial assistance from artsnb. I applied for two grants in the career development component: one for a Category B residency, and one for part-time studies. My two applications were accepted.
And so in January 2015, for a period of four months, my experience began. Location: CNIMA Jacques-Mornet in Saint-Sauves d’Auvergne, France. A rural place, sloping 1000 meters above the sea level in the heart of the Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park. A wonderful place to walk in the open air if you go there someday! At CNIMA, everything happens in a single building. This is where you live, eat and attend classes. A real immersion since we work not only with a team of professors, but with about thirty student accordionists. My residency was titled “le Souffle de l’Acadie”, and consisted of putting on a concert of Acadian pieces performed by the students and teachers of the school. The purpose of the concert was to shed light on the Acadian people – a people that is still poorly known abroad, I think mainly because they are a people of indefinite geography. Unbelievable how certain things are more easily defined by borders… For the concert, I wrote arrangements of pieces by Angèle Arsenault and Zachary Richard, and traditional pieces. I also presented some personal compositions which were inspired during the residency. All the pieces were written during my stay in France.
My four months there were filled with activity, the first phase being the discovery of my environment: the rhythm of the courses to blend in and get to know the professors and students. After two weeks, I started imagining the concert, building collaborations and knowing who and what to aim for with my arrangements. This led to the second phase, writing, which I integrated with a partial course schedule. The third phase, about a month and a half later, was when my pieces were mostly completed, and the participating students and teachers prepared these pieces for the concert. What a pleasure it was to write all these pieces for accordion solo, duo, quartet, and even octet! There have been some great challenges. One of the instructions I received from the school was to integrate students of all levels, even the beginners. The octet was written for them; each individual score was easier, but the whole was beautiful. It was like a string section.
My residency finished with the concert, which took place in the hall of the Mont-Dore town hall on April 16, 2015. A magical day, where everyone put their hands to work with a smile on their faces. An evening where there was a beautiful exchange with the public, as much on stage as after the concert, with lively discussions. A superb moment that condensed these four short months. But what a magnificent stay! The chance to immerse myself, get inspired and learn in a dynamic environment. Besides, who wouldn’t want to start their day woken warmly by the sun piercing the line of volcanoes between 6:30 and 7:00am?!
My time at the CNIMA Jacques-Mornet has left a mark on me. The residency allowed me to make some wonderful connections. I learned to write better for the accordion by exploring it more, both at the level of the style and in terms of the possibilities of sound combinations. And my lessons allowed me to break my bad technical habits and rebuild them in a better way. Since my return, working on my own, I find that I am continuing to improve. The tools I learned there have stayed with me. As a result, I can express myself so much better on the accordion. What I hear in my head, I succeed better at getting out. And so I express myself. I am writing more than ever for the accordion. I am feeding on musical exchanges, currently with Roland Bourgeois and others, as vehicles of my composition. And the wheels keep turning. artsnb is currently supporting me through a creation grant. I have broadened my network by participating in major events: the Carrefour mondial de l’accordéon in Montmagny last September, the Victoria International Accordion Festival this summer (with the help of a travel grant from the Canada Council for the Arts), and others to come.
I would like to sincerely thank the CNIMA Jacques-Mornet, and especially artsnb: the artists need you. And artists: artsnb needs us too! Let’s stay active with our projects, push ourselves and take time to contact the arts associations to find out how they can support us.
A pianist, keyboardist and accordionist, Jesse appears on stages across Canada, France, Belgium and Switzerland. In addition to his personal projects of creation with the accordion, he accompanies several artists, most of them francophone. A lover of musical encounters and teamwork, he enjoys traveling, sharing, discovering, and laughing. Offstage, he wisely applies his musical sensibilities to the creation and production of musical projects from other artists. Jesse shows a predilection for the bellow of the accordion, and is determined to take this instrument beyond its stereotypes.
You can follow Jesse’s work on his YouTube channel.