Swiss-Israeli jazz accords from Italy

Antonello Messina will strike an accordion with the Modus Quartet at this year’s Globus Jazz festival.

The Modus Quartet (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Modus Quartet
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Italian-born Swiss accordionist Antonello Messina’s career began with a surprise gift. “I started playing music when I was very young, at the age of 11,” he recalls. “As is often the case with very serious things, it all started as a game. My father gave me and my brothers a wonderful gift – a set of real musical instruments he had bought from a friend of his who owned a music store. I chose the keyboard without even knowing what it was.
One of my brothers chose the electric bass, the other started on the guitar.
Later, a cousin joined us with his drums. The band was complete, and so was the family!” Messina will be showing off what he has learned since then when he performs as part of the Modus Quartet on the second day of the Globus Jazz festival, which kicks off on November 28.
In a performance dedicated to the late MK Yuri Shtern, he will be playing with Swiss-based Israeli percussionist Omri Hason, Swiss reedman Wege Wüthrich and Swiss bassist Lorenz Beyeler. The band plays jazz material with a liberal sprinkling of colors and energies from this part of the world.
Messina says he felt the pull to the Middle East from the word go.
“I was born in Palermo, in the very heart of the Mediterranean Sea,” he says.
“I only had to open my window, and I would be bathing in ethnic music coming from the street market just below, together with the scent of spices and Middle Eastern accents of the merchants.
That, too, was music to my ears.”
In fact, the accordion was not his first choice of instrument.
Messina’s early keyboard exploits found their way into what he does today, and he says it has given him something of a left-field approach.
“I poured everything I could from my pianistic experience into the accordion. The result is that I have developed into quite an atypical accordionist. This transition from one instrument to the other has been key to my music style and my relationship with the accordion.”
Local ethnic sounds and pungent market-stall wares notwithstanding, he says he knew from an early age that he would seek his artistic muses from other creative climes.
“When I bought my first accordion, I didn’t know very much of what I wanted to do with it, except that I wouldn’t be playing folk music. Before I even knew how it worked properly, I was already recording small parts in studios, as there were not many accordionists around.”
A career-changing purchase eventually impacted his session-player endeavor: “One day I bought a CD whose cover attracted me because it showed an absolutely splendid Excelsior accordion.
I brought the CD home. It turned out to be [American jazz accordionist] Art Van Damme playing jazz standards.
After [modern jazz founder saxophonist] Charlie Parker, this was my second revelation! Since then, I have never ceased to think of the accordion as a jazz instrument. And of course, I bought myself the same accordion as the one on the CD cover.”
He says Parker also played a significant role in pointing him in the direction of improvisational music.
“A friend of mine, who was a sax player, once said to me: ‘You know, I really think you should be playing jazz.’ He introduced me to [the music of] Charlie Parker, and that was a real revolution for me. All of a sudden, I lost interest in everything I had heard before. Since then, it has been a neverending journey. Many other musical influences – including classical music – complete my way of playing jazz through the years. I will always be grateful to that old sax player friend.”
Even with Van Damme blazing the jazz accordion-playing trail long before Messina got in on the act, the Italian still had to find his own niche on an instrument that is still not readily associated with the genre, and he had to develop his own playing technique.
“In recent years, I’ve worked a lot on the ‘walking bass’ technique for accompaniment, both on themes and on solos,” he says. “It is a difficult technique to apply to an instrument like mine, which is a standard bass accordion.”
He also fed off the inspirational efforts of another fellow instrumentalist: “The only musician I know who applied this [walking bass] technique this way is Tommy Gumina, who, in my view, is the best accordionist of all time. He applied this technique on an accordion prototype he himself created, especially in a recording in trio with drums and guitar. He has been a real pioneer.”
By the time Messina hooked up with Hason, he was well-versed in the music of the Middle East.
“I’ve played with different bands throughout Italy, and for many years with a band named Kalsa – which is the name of a historical street market in Palermo,” he explains, adding that going with the flow is part and parcel of what he and the rest of the quartet do. “Basically we are all jazz musicians and, like many jazz musicians of our generation, we are quite open to other styles, cultures and sounds.”
He says Hason’s call to get the Modus Quartet together came at the right time.
“I think Omri had long been looking for an accordionist who could play both jazz and ethnic music. Some other musicians told him about me, and he just called me up. This was the start of a great music collaboration and, most of all, a great, deep friendship.”
THE FESTIVAL’S opening event at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Harmony Hall on Hillel Street features a multinational lineup that includes US vocalist Anita King. Supporting King, who is making her debut professional foray to this part of the world, will be Slovenian drummer Gaspar Bertonsel as well as three local artists – Russian-born saxophonist Robert Anchipolovsky, pianist Igor Khodorkovsky and Australian-born bassist Simon Starr.
The program incorporates a wide spread of jazz styles and genres, from straight-ahead modern jazz courtesy of Jerusalem-based saxophonist Lenny Sendersky – teaming up with Finnish pianist Kari Ikonen – to earlier jazz forms from the Jerusalem Swing Band and the Sadna Jerusalem Conservatory Jazz Band. Jazz composer Boris Gammer will direct proceedings from the conductor’s podium.
There will also be slots that draw from areas outside the strict confines of mainstream jazz, including the JAG Trio show with vocalist-pianist Julia Feldman, veteran avant garde saxophonist Albert Beger and drummer Gilad Dobrecki; the Tezeta sextet, led by Ethiopian-born saxophonist and vocalist Abateh Barihun; and the Anat Fort Trio, with acoustic bass player Tal Gamlieli and drummer Yaki Levi joining the eponymous pianist.
On the last day of the festival Sendersky will participate in one of the more envelope-pushing shows in the six-day bash, together with Jerusalem flutist Dvir Katz, celebrated Soviet-born pianist-keyboardist Slava Ganelin and legendary East German-born free jazz drummer Gunther “Baby” Sommer.
For more information about the Globus Jazz Festival: 052-263-4444 or