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The Four Bags: Chamber Music for the Shuffle Era

With our brains set on “shuffle,” programmed now to process (if not to crave) a constant barrage of random sounds and images, a quartet such as the Four Bags no longer seems like the desperately jokey novelty it would have seemed like a decade ago. The group is a chamber ensemble making music in the era-defining category of the uncategorizable, its work a hybrid of jazz, classical, folk, and pop musics from around the world. Exuberant, virtuosic, and light-spirited, the Four Bags make smart music with a quiet, joyful intensity. The instrumentation is accordion (Jacob Garchik), electric guitar (Sean Moran, who plays separately in a metal band), Brian Drye (trombone), and woodwinds (Michael McGinnis), a happy accident of timbres that gives the band’s music a quality of a neatly constructed found-object collage. I’m loving the group’s new CD, Forth, and I have a low tolerance for gimmickry and ironic posturing. The eclecticism of this music feels organic; if it’s a pose, it’s a disarming one.

I will admit, though, to a lifelong weakness for the sound of the accordion, which I relish for both its postcard evocation of Old World street life as well as for its happy lounge-show cheesiness. Both conceptions of the instrument are clichés that once limited the accordion’s use in pop music, only to advance its use in alt-rock and “Americana” (formerly called “folk”) music in recent years. Listeners accustomed to the co-existing cheekiness and claim to authenticity of bands such as Arcade Fire would no doubt see simple falseness in the lyrics of “Telling the Truth,” the song that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty slave over in the movie Ishtar:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand
If you admit that you can play the accordion
No one’ll hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band

Jacob Garchik plays the instrument with absolutely no hamming, overtly rejecting one accordion tradition, the one of showy crowd-pleasing. Garchik’s approach pays subtle homage to the cult giants of jazz accordion, Tommy Gumina (who turned eighty this year) and Art Van Damme (who died at eighty last year). Since I may never have a better excuse to bring them up, I’ll share here Gumina’s pretty recording of Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” with a still-image YouTube collage made by an admirer, and a clip of Van Damme playing Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” in concert in Denmark, three years before his death.

Art Van Damme - “Here’s To That Rainy Day”