Feature/Interview (PP)

Jonny Kerry (new album ‘Castelfidardo’)

As his second album Castelfidardo is released, Jonny Kerry talks about the joys and challenges of bringing the piano accordion to the jazz stage. Interview feature by John Bungey:

Jonny Kerry could have taken the easy option and become a pianist: lots of well-mapped standards to play, lots of famous footsteps to follow in – and no heavy lifting. But instead Kerry opted to move on to the piano accordion. 

“I’ve always liked a challenge,” Kerry says of this tricky-to-master instrument with its keys, bellows and reeds. “I got frustrated by the accordion for years and thought, why don’t I just play piano? But I’ve always liked things that are a bit different, and fell in love with the sound and history of the instrument.” And as the second album by the Lincolnshire-based bandleader comes out, he’s confident he’s made the right choice. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities through the accordion that I wouldn’t have got if I played piano. I’ve played for the Prince of Monaco, I was in an episode of Peaky Blinders and the other week I played at a party for Tom Odell alongside some wonderful musicians.” On YouTube streams are up to a million with a solo version of Autumn Leaves earning 115,000 views alone, as well as over 700,000 streams on Spotify. 

The new album, Castelfidardo, has a spring in its step – a joyful mix of gypsy jazz, bossa nova, tango and French musette. Kerry’s group includes two guitars and double bass with discreet percussion and strings as required. There are standards: the accordionist sings After You’ve Gone and Smile in a languorous croon; there’s Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rhumba nimbly covered plus originals, including a delicious flurry of accordion and guitar that’s a good deal sunnier than its title – Lockdown – might suggest. The ghost of Django Reinhardt hovers in the wings, which is not surprising given that the guitarist invented the gypsy jazz genre more or less singlehandedly.

The album release marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the accordion with its title saluting the small Italian town (pop. 19,000) at the centre of the country’s accordion business. And in Italy building accordions has been very big business indeed – before the advent of Fiat, the squeezebox was reportedly Italy’s biggest-grossing export. “Castelfidardo is the town where the accordion was developed into the professional-sounding instrument it is today,” says Kerry, who bought his own Victoria, the favoured jazz brand, there. 

The peak of popularity came in the 1950s – until rock’n’roll, finding no use for the instrument’s warm tone, dealt the instrument a body blow. “Although the accordion never lost popularity in countries like Brazil, here it became a very uncool instrument to play.” 

Kerry, 32, who was born in Grantham, was a young teenager learning piano when his grandfather presented him with a piano accordion. It was a struggle at first. “I started trying to find albums to hear how it sounded when professionals played it. I discovered Art Van Damme and Richard Galliano and realised the accordion could sound really good.”

Today he wants to help popularise the instrument. “People often haven’t heard it before. At gigs they’ll come up and be quite open; they’ll say that they didn’t think they were going to come but are very glad they did and really enjoyed it. I get that all the time.”

There need to be more star accordionists to attract new players. “When choosing an instrument people tend to pick an instrument that people they idolise play. If you like Oscar Peterson it’s going to be piano or with Joe Pass, guitar.”

Kerry’s TV spot in Peaky Blinders might help. In episode five of series three he played a hot-blooded folk tune at an energetically decadent Russian party the Brummie gangsters attend (vodka and accordion turn out to be a libidinous blend). “There were quite a lot of takes but it was worth it – a good experience,” he says.

Beyond the UK the piano accordion can offer a quicker path to success. “I’ve got a friend who I speak to occasionally in Brazil who sings and plays the accordion and he’s got a million followers on Instagram. He owns Ferraris and is a household name, a pop star. I certainly don’t think for one minute I’ll have that kind of success in the UK, but it’s interesting to see how the accordion is still a very popular instrument in other countries.” 

Kerry is optimistic about the future, pleased with the album, and hopes to get Arts Council funding for a tour. As for his own Ferrari, well who knows?

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LINK: Jonny Kerry’s website

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