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Squeezing into the spotlight 

A musician put his accordion on the back seat of his car, drove for a while, and stopped to eat before heading to his gig. He was halfway through dinner when he realized he'd forgotten to lock his car door.

He ran out to his car, but it was too late. There, on the back seat, were two accordions.

At the time I heard that joke, the accordion was, to put it mildly, out of favor. Decades of "The Lawrence Welk Show" had rendered the instrument squarer than square. But when Will Holshouser brings his Musette Explosion to Bop Shop Records on Tuesday he'll be playing one of the hippest instruments of the 21st century. The accordion is back.

Holshouser was studying jazz piano at Wesleyan University in the late 1980's when a friend bought him an accordion.

"It was almost a joke," Holshouser says. "We got back from summer vacation and he said, 'Hey, I got you a surprise.' It was this musty old accordion and I loved it right away. It reminded me of a lot of folk music that I liked and the music of some bands like The Pogues."

From Cajun groups like Beausoleil, to Klezmer bands like the Klezmatics, Holshouser realized people were doing new, progressive things with traditional music and he wanted in.

"The accordion got me out of the jazz head space," Holshouser says. "It was a good way to connect with a lot of folk music that wasn't really part of the piano [repertoire] and a doorway to a lot of the music that I really enjoyed."

He taught himself to play by listening to records; there was no one teaching accordion at Wesleyan. But he did get an invaluable musical education there from jazz great Anthony Braxton.

"At the time I was writing 32-bar jazz tunes and he said, 'Put some more surprises in your music: a line as long as you can possibly write, make your compositions in different shapes.' He broke me out of a certain mold of jazz composition. Studying with him was a revelation."

After moving to New York, Holshouser eventually found an accordion mentor: William Schimmel, who played with Tom Waits and others.

Now an accordion virtuoso, Holshouser is in demand. He works with violinist Regina Carter, he plays Klezmer music with clarinetists David Krakauer and Andy Statman, and works with others, from folk singer Loudon Wainwright III to avant-garde drummer Han Bennink.

But with keys on one side, chord buttons on the other, and the bellows in the middle, how in the world does he play that convoluted contraption?

"There are two separate boxes, your hands are operating two separate mechanisms and you're operating the bellows in between," Holshouser says, "but it becomes a unified action. Even though it's the wackiest looking activity, you get used to doing it in a unified way. It has a lot to do with breathing.

"Even though it's a machine, there's breath in there so it almost feels like you're singing because you're using breath in a virtual way. You can feel it vibrating on your chest. It's a very strange little machine but if you play it enough, it becomes part of you like any musical instrument would."

Then there's the obscure, but infectious music Holshouser is playing: Parisian Musette.

The word "musette" actually refers to a small bagpipe, and these bagpipes, played by migrants from the south of France, were the main instruments used in this style of Parisian dancehall music when it began in the 19th century. But Holshouser explains, around 1900 there was a wave of migration from Italy to Paris and Italians brought accordions.

"The accordion was louder, more modern and it could play in all different keys so it pretty quickly eclipsed the little musette bagpipe as the main instrument in the dance halls," Holshouser says. In addition to its French and Italian heritage, the music is influenced by Romani music and the American jazz brought to Paris during World War II.

Holshouser first heard the music in the early 1990's when old Musette recordings were re-released on a French label.

"I had just discovered the instrument and was looking for any recording that had an accordion on it," Holshouser says. "I wanted to see what the sonic possibilities were. Musette is a music where the accordion is the lead voice and the players get a wonderful bunch of colors and textures out of it."

Musette has the power to conjure up something in our minds: a time and place that maybe we never experienced but know from late-night black-and-white movie scenes of Parisian street corners.

"There's a large pleasure factor," Holshouser says. "It's party music from dancehalls and brothels; people partying, drinking wine.

"The nostalgic aspect is there, and we love the old repertoire, but we want to bring something new to it so we do it in a New York way; we improvise a lot." He has also written new tunes in the style.

Holshouser says there are a lot of bands finding old music and doing new things but, "This is the only one that I know of that combines these particular flavors in this way." As a result, the trio — with Matt Munisteri on guitar and six-string banjo, and Marcus Rojas on tuba — is getting lots of gigs. Holshouser can't say enough about his band-mates.

"Matt is not a typical Gypsy jazz player, he's got a voice that combines George Barnes and country music. Marcus is a veteran of the avant-garde scene, playing with Henry Threadgill and Lester Bowie. He's also an accomplished classical player; he's played with The Metropolitan Opera and tours with Paul Simon."

The trio will soon embark on a West Coast tour during which Holshouser will bring his accordion onto the stage at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival. Given the accordion's new-found respect, this might be the last time you'll hear his favorite joke about the instrument:

What's the definition of perfect pitch? When you throw an accordion into a dumpster and it lands on a banjo.

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