Wednesday night, the four corners of Bryant Park were awash in the blissful, plaintive, bittersweet and sometimes boisterously pulsing tones of many of New York’s most captivating accordionists. Booked by Ariana Hellerman, publisher of the irreplaceable free events and concert guide Ariana’s List – a primary source for a lot of what you find on the monthly NYC concert calendar here – opening night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival featured music from France, Russia, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil, many other countries and all over the US as well. Hellerman’s setup – a single accordionist or small group situated in every corner of the park, as well as over by the fountain on the west side, works out perfectly since each act is far enough away from the others to ensure that there’s no sonic competition.
Performances are staggered, Golden Fest style, with brief fifteen minute sets and virtually no time lost between acts. Some of the accordionists rotate, so that you can catch more of them if fifteen minutes isn’t enough for you – seriously, is fifteen minutes of accordion music ever enough?
A tour of the festival’s first hour was as rapturously good as expected. It was tempting to pull up a seat in the shade to be serenaded by the Wisterians’ poignant French musettes, or the great Ismail Butera’s edgy, supersonic take on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, or Phil Passantino‘s wildly spiraling Cajun songs. But just like Golden Fest, it’s like being a kid in a candy store here, a great way to discover dozens of new artists. For starters, Mindra Sahadeo played calmly lustrousIndian carnatic music, singing in a sonorous baritone and accompanied by his mom on mridangam, another woman to his right adding vocals. He was a ringer, considering that he was playing harmonium (there were also a couple of others on the bill playing the concertina).
Next, in the northeast corner, the charismatic Alan Morrow entertained the crowd. Is there anything this guy can’t play? Segueing breathlessly between styles, he fired off bits and pieces of songs across pretty much every conceivable genre. About a minute after Dave Brubeck, we got James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m a New Yorker and I’m proud,” Morrow grinned, and the audience agreed. By then he’d already made his way through classical, ragtime, jazz, hints of klezmer and finally the longest number of his set, the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, which turned out perfect for the accordion – and for a second seemed that he was going to do the whole album version, complete with hazy string-and-poetry interlude.
The highlight of the hour – at least from this perspective – turned out to be Guillermo Vaisman, who played a tantalizingly brief set of chamame tunes. It’s a popular folk style that’s common on the Uruguay-Brazil border, like tango but less classically-tinged, or a more lively counterpart to candombe. And it’s hard to find in New York. Vaisman’s elegance and dynamics throughout a mix of waltzes and more upbeat material put him on the map as someone who would be even more enjoyable to see stretching out with a longer set.
The festival continues for the next two Wednesdays, starting at 6 PM. The July 5 show features, among others, the haunting and amazingly eclectic Melissa Elledge, playful avant garde jazz and Romany accordionist Shoko Nagai, and Jordan Shapiro, better known as the organist in Choban Elektrik, the Balkan Doors. Closing night is Friday, July 21 at 8, hosted by the mesmerizing Rachelle Garniez, featuring Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Colombian music, to name just three styles. And it’s free.