I just finished an extended weekend bookended by two radically different kinds of performances on the accordion. A few days ago I was in New Braunfels, Texas, where I spent a long evening at the town’s social event of the year, Wurstfest, a kind of topsy-turvy Oktoberfest that emphasizes sausage rather than beer. (Although judging from the yahoos who showed off how much brew they'd consumed by locking the handles of the plastic souvenir pitchers into their front pockets, I can assure you that alcohol consumption is alive and well down there.)
Most of the live entertainment—if you don’t count the soused regalers—consisted of groups using some kind of variation of that old German oompah beat. Headlining on the night I visited was the Jimmy Sturr Orchestra, the schmaltzy Texas polka band that has a veritable stranglehold on the Grammy for best polka album (Sturr has won the award 16 of the 22 times it's been given, including 10 of the last 12). Whereas midwestern polka opts for a tough, traditional sound, Sturr is pure showbiz corn. His electric keyboardist warmed the crowd up with some synth swells that suggested the Alan Parsons Project before morphing into “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Sturr clearly arrived at polka via Bobby Vinton, and after hearing the group slam through “Splish Splash,” it became clear that he spends far more time perfecting his plastic-looking do than working on an interesting repertoire. Sturr had some stiff competition in the coif category—one of his saxophonists sported a wig that looked like it had just been picked up in front of a door, and his violinist shaped his actual hair into a mullet par excellence.
The members of the Frode Haltli Quartet, the Norwegian group that performed yesterday at the Chicago Cultural Center, lacked the kind of haircuts that are worth discussing and they didn’t play any Bobby Darin covers, either. But the group’s gorgeous, radical reimaginings of traditional Norwegian folk material produced some of the most beautiful and meditative music I’ve heard all year. The group focused on music from the recent Passing Images (ECM), but the tweaked lineup—with violinist and hardanger fiddle maestro Nils Okland replacing violist Garth Knox, and American jazz clarinetist Darryl Harper subbing for mercurial Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen—introduced lovely new sonorities and angles to the material.
Four Mints, Gently Down Your Stream (Asterisk)
Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Dortmund) 1976 (Hatology)
Bob & Gene, If This World Were Mine... (Daptone)
Anthony Brown, Family (Asian Improv)
João Donato, O Piano de João Donato (Deckdisc)