Guy Klucevsek: Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy

My first exposure to accordionist Guy Klucevsek came about years ago when I acquired Bobby Previte's 1988 album Claude's Late Morning and not long after Bill Frisell's Have a Little Faith. Yet while Klucevsek has built up an impressive CV as a sideman for artists such as Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Kronos Quartet, and John Zorn, he's also established himself as a solo artist of considerable repute. A scan of his discography reveals an early cassette collaboration with Pauline Oliveros and a long list of solo releases for Tzadik, Winter & Winter, Intuition, and Starkland, among others, dating back to 1986. A stellar addition, Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy provides a rather encompassing portrait, seeing as how it features the trailblazer playing alone and in the company of others, including violinist Todd Reynolds, soprano Kamala Sankaram, and pianist Alan Bern. Further to that, it includes tributes to Kurt Weill, Nino Rota, and Astor Piazzolla alongside remembrances of deceased friends, among them arts patron Bob Flath and fellow accordionist Lars Hollmer. Like fellow innovators Oliveros and Frode Haltli, Klucevsek has done much to establish the accordion as a viable instrument choice for any number of experimental contexts.

With eighteen pieces on offer, there's much to dig into, not to mention a plethora of styles. And though many of the pieces originated out of material he wrote for dance/theatre productions or other contexts, they don't sound disjointed when gathered together as they are here, even despite the variety of instrumental groupings featured. The set-list includes “The Swan and the Vulture,” written in 9/8, one of his “favourite eastern-European meters,” and the miniature “Shimmer,” which, composed in memory of composer William Duckworth, lives up to its billing in presenting a rather Amelie-esque character. Sharing in a wintry theme, there's “The Day the Snow Fell Upwards,” a pretty accordion-piano vignette composed as a Christmas present for a mother and daughter (both pianists), and “Ice Flowers,” which does much to evoke the wistful feeling one might have while watching from a warm indoors perch snow falling on a freezing January afternoon.

In a surprising move, two pieces, “Roundabout Now” and “Haywire Rag,” feature the playing of pianist Bern only, the move perhaps reflecting Klucevsek's desire to draw attention to his gifts as a composer in addition to instrumentalist. He also sits out on “Song of Remembrance” (from the score for Fallen Shadows, which he composed in 1990 for a dance/theatre work by Karen Bamonte), a rather Weill-esque ballad elevated by Sankaram's sensitive vocal turn and Reynolds' sympathetic support.

As solid as the solo performances are, it's the duos with the violinist (seven in total) that satisfy most. These settings abound in singing melodies and infectious rhythms, and it's difficult to imagine anyone not responding to the jubilant spirit of these pieces, as well as the heart-on-the-sleeve emotion of “Hungarian Hummingbird,” the title track, and the lovely Satie tribute “Hymnopedie No. 2.” And though “The Asphalt Orchid” is the one formally designated as the Piazzolla homage, “Riding the Wild Tangaroo” feels as much a tribute, considering the spirited reading Reynolds and Klucevsek give the tune's dance tango rhythms.

Admittedly, there are occasions when the mood shifts so dramatically the effect is startling, such as when the recording follows the elegiac “Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels” with the uproarious Rota tribute, “Little Big Top,” its charge led by bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern. But for the most part, the recording's mercurial nature comes to seem less than jarring when changes in compositional style and instrumental configurations occur with such regularity.

October 2016