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I’ve got one perfect word to sum up with weeks’ column: jazz. Let’s get right to it.
I can’t remember how or when I fell in love with gypsy jazz music. But I fell hard and am still on the voyage of discovery. So it was a happy day when I heard from a local mom telling me that her daughter’s jazz band Carte Blanche was coming to Portland for a show. Although the band is based in New York City, band leader and accordionist Kate Dunphy is a South Portland native. Her awesome mom Betsy dropped off two Carte Blanche CDs to me and each listening is a trip back to the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s by way of French, Latin and American jazz standards and originals. Singer Christina Kaminis is a sensational vocalist and behind her are the sweet sounds of violin, guitar, bass, percussion and Kate Dunphy’s accordion.
The self-titled debut CD is home to 14 exquisite songs and I felt a stab of sadness when it ended. So I started from the top and listened to it again and again. Then I set my sights on the EP “Back to Henri,” home to five original compositions, and the love affair blossomed. “C’est Juste un Tango” is scintillating, with intricate acoustic guitar and the oh-so-French accordion. Am I gushing? So be it. I love this band and will even go so far as to say that they should be famous.
Barely able to contain myself I reached out to Kate Dunphy to get the story behind the band and her part in it. Dunphy studied jazz piano and composition at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. Carte Blanche guitarist Sean Clapis is also an alum with a degree in Jazz Studies. I’ve always found the accordion to be an intimidating instrument and had to know how Dunphy decided to tackle it.
“I started wrestling with it in 2006 when my father gave me one as a Christmas gift,” she said. “It had never been an interest of mine until I had it in my hands and then I was hooked. The more I listened to accordion music from around the world the more fascinated I became with the incredible range of the instrument from folk to gypsy jazz to 20th century classical music.”
From there Dunphy got cozy with everything from Tango to Cumbia to French musette and beyond. Accordion is a tough instrument to play, and Dunphy is thankful she has a background in piano.
“It requires a lot of physical strength as it is very heavy and you have to control by pumping the bellows with your left arm, which is not really a natural movement,” Dunphy said.
She had to start slow and incorporate push-ups into her workout to boost her upper-body strength. That’s dedication!
But the biggest challenge, said Dunphy, is that you can’t really see what you’re doing with the left-hand buttons. Because they all feel the same, muscle memory is key – as is the ability to forgive yourself for mistakes.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to Dunphy’s love of music. Her father is a banjoist in the Bellamy Jazz Band out of Portland and she grew up listening to tunes of that era. Once she picked up the accordion and started playing with French musicians in Manhattan, her fate was sealed. Carte Blanche even dresses in era-appropriate costumes. The band cite artists like Edith Piaf, Buena Vista Social Club, Django Reinhart, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Antonio Carlos Jobim among their influences.
Dunphy told me that the band has its sights set on a full-length album of all originals next year and are close to releasing their first official music video. Keep a close eye – and ear – on www.carteblanchejazzband.com and join me Thursday night for an intimate show in downtown Portland.
Carte Blanche. 8 p.m. Thursday. Acoustic Artisans, 594 Congress St., Portland. $15. www.acousticartisans.com
AND SPEAKING OF JAZZ, the Azar Lawrence Quartet have two shows at Blue on Sunday. Tenor saxophonist Lawrence has played with the likes of Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Freddy Lawrence so yeah, he’s a big deal. He’ll be playing with his quartet to town so you’ll hear pianist Benito Gonzales, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Brandon Lewis. Both shows could easily sell-out so hop to it.
Azar Lawrence Quartet. 3 and 6 p.m. shows. Sunday. Blue. 650A Congress St., Portland. $30,$40. portcityblue.com