When Julien Labro performs, he wants to change your mind about what the accordion can do.
And Labro will attempt just that with an April 27 performance at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. Although he has performed numerous times in Michigan, this is his first appearance at the Gilmore, which he has thought was “very cool” for at least 10 years now.
“Now, it’s reality. I’m going to enjoy every minute for sure,” Labro said.
During the first half of his show, he will be accompanied by a pianist in more of a chamber style featuring classical music.
“For the second part, I’ll be bringing my jazz quartet in and we will feature more of my own compositions and the jazzier side of things,” he said.
Composing is second nature to Labro, who is just as comfortable writing a concerto for the accordion as he is putting together arrangements for chamber music groups, modern jazz bands or orchestras. If he’s not writing for himself, he’s usually writing for someone else.
While not everything he composes makes it onto the performance stage, Labro said he thinks anything is possible. In addition to the accordion, he also plays the bandoneon, an instrument closely related to the accordion and considered an essential instrument in tango ensembles.
“I use my instrument as a tool and if I find a key that touches me profoundly, I need to find ways to adapt the music,” Labro said. “The more you do it, you realize what works and what doesn’t. I try to make anything sound good on the accordion.”
Labro performs with other solo artists and musical groups, but he said there’s nothing quite like playing with an orchestra.
“The sounds of 50 musicians around you is so amazing. When you’re in sync with the orchestra, it multiplies the message,” Labro said.
The Winnipeg Press said in a review of his music that, “Labro plays the chromatic accordion with the style and verve of a rock musician, maintaining the European cabaret feel of Gypsy jazz, but adding a more modern, innovative touch. Who would have expected the accordion to sound so hip?”
His journey from a small town in France to performance venues around the world began when Labro saw a television program that showed a singer accompanied by an accordion player. He was nine years old at the time and captivated by the melodies created by the singer and her accompanist. His parents rented him an accordion and found an instructor.
Labro said he knew right away, “this was going to be something I wanted to do permanently. It was my life’s calling.”
Unlike many children who study an instrument, he said he never watched the clock while practicing and never thought of it as a chore. His mastery with the accordion got him into competitions that took him all over Europe.
“In Europe, there’s quite a culture of competition. It’s a little bit like the Olympics,” Labro said. “You might start at the regional level and if you do well, you go to nationals and then you compete internationally.”
After competing as a youth, Labro went on to attend the Marseilles Conservatory. Following that, he enrolled at Wayne State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in classical accordion and master’s degrees in composition and jazz.
“I knew if I stuck with this, it could end up being a career for me,” Labro said.
His optimism was bolstered by the popularity of the accordion in Europe. Labro said he had a number of professional accordion players who were his mentors.
“Because we have many more accordion players in Europe, they’ve been able to break the stigma surrounding the instrument,” Labro said. “In the United States, when anybody mentions the accordion, they think of Lawrence Welk. What I’ve been trying to do is very different than that.
“People are still amazed at what that instrument can do. I love the fact that I’ve been able to change peoples’ minds about it.”
Julien Labro Quartet
Dalton Center Recital Hall
Van De Giessen Rd #3001, Kalamazoo
April 27, 8 p.m., $15-$35