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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The pickPocket Ensemble, Rick Corrigan’s little world music combo that could, has just released a small and intense record, Memory. And like a memory alright, the pPE hangs on and keeps evolving, musically and personally, since 1998.

The pickPocket Ensemble albums are dream-like escapades to ancient, calm, romantic cities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This might sound crazy, but there was a time in where those areas were the ultimate relaxing vacation experience (just ask Vincent Van Gogh).

We managed to get a hold of Mr. Rick Corrigan, accordionist, composer, and producer of the band. He and his band are preparing for a series of shows this fall in the San Francisco Bay Area, promoting their new album Memory. We had a short conversation with Mr. Corrigan before the ensemble's performance at the Subterranean Artthouse in Berkeley, California.

Rick, your combo’s new album runs about 27 minutes. Why so short?
There's a long list of classic short records: The Beatles' Revolver is about 32 minutes long, Nick Drake's Pink Moon is a little over 28 minutes. But the real answer is that that group of songs at that length is exactly what was needed to tell the story we wanted to tell. I'd much rather hear you say it's too short than to tell me it's too long!

Subterranean Arthouse, Berkeley, California. November 12, 2010,
featuring Sam Bass (left) on cello. Photo: Javier Moreno.

Through the years, the pickPocket Ensemble structure is pretty much you and a revolving door of musicians. You are your own Ian Anderson or Robert Fripp to your Jethro Tull or King Crimson.
Yes, the band is built around the music that I write, and I just seem to plow on through thick and thin. Though I must say that certain of my compatriots, for example Marguerite [Ostro], have a long-time commitment and deep understanding and love for this music. And it becomes as much theirs as mine. And I can't say enough good things about my band mates on every level.

You must have had lots of influences…
…Or should I say inspirations, in no particular order: Beatles, Maurice Ravel Anouar Brahem, Bernard Herrmann (Alfred Hitchcock’s composer), Nino Rota, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Sex Pistols, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Dan Cantrell and the Toids, Hamza El Din, accordionist Michael Ganion, Thelonius Monk, Claude Debussy, Glenn Gould, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Any and all Paris Musette, Amalia Rodrigues, Eric Satie, Julio Jaramillo, Nick Drake, Incredible String Band, Kurt Weill… [pauses] The song "Moscow Nights" from my childhood, Anton Karas' zither music from the Third Man score, the Muscle Shoals musicians… Yair Dalal!

You are moving eastbound as you speak.
Yes. Any music that comes from a desert is an inspiration. Any and all sounds that come to me "broken" from afar; that is, sounds that I don't quite hear correctly, so I re-create it in my consciousness in a way that is pleasing and also maintains the strangeness that captivated and transported me.

You don’t seem to "transpose” or "copy” the entire structure of a song in an exhaustive way…
Absolutely not exhaustive, since I listen to everything that comes my way and absorb it, or not, quickly. I give a lot of respect to musicians and artists, their work and their lives.

This question might sound odd, but why an accordion?
Before I picked up the accordion, I was an electronic musician, through and through - I was steeped in the "noise" sound culture of the 80's and early 90's. I grew completely weary of that and wanted to find music and expression that was more real, or down to earth… or meaningful. I bought an accordion since it was so simple and portable.

Once you got the accordion in your hands, what music you based your style first?
The first music I fell in love with was Parisian Musette and what they call manouche jazz, French gypsy music… though gypsy is a term to use very sparingly. Rom and Roma are more appropriate. Of course Django Reinhart, but also the great French accordionists or composers from the 30's and 40's: Tony Murena, Jo Privat, Gus Viseur. In addition to this I moved into listening to a lot of other French stylists from the 50's and early 60's - George Brassens, Yves Montand, Barbara. Though this doesn't quite compute rationally, I also moved from listening to Georges Brassens to Isabel Parra - still one of my greatest inspirations: so real, earthy, simple yet deep, deep.

Klezmer is what comes to mind at first. The musical tradition of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe.
My own playing seemed to be more naturally drifting towards a kind of klezmer - less swing and more straight up folky, with that strange scale, and pieces I wrote from that period -"Third Night,” “The Dredel” and “Honesty” reflected that.

East was your musical niche.
Yes. Then I discovered Balkan music, with those incredible odd meters. This was liberating - I could be free to write melodies as they wanted to come out, not "boxed in" by a 4/4 time. Also, the melodies were both hauntingly beautiful, and also not "boxed in" by the klezmer scale. Listening to music like The Rustavi Choir and Ensemble Georgika, Yale Strom, Nicolae Gutsa, Greek and Macedonian music - very lively, with that "thin quicksilver mercury sound" that Dylan used to talk about. Most important, it was about the ornamentation: how to linger on a note. This still is a place of learning.

That's incredible. Are you still learning after all these music styles?
Yes. Along with all of that, I also studied flamenco music - and went so far as to study flamenco dance for 2 years, to try to get those rhythms. And I studied with a Lebanese accordionist, Elias Lammam, to learn how middle-eastern music moved. He had, incredibly, an accordion tuned to 1/4 tones - not a western scale at all, which opened my ears up further. I love the dance of middle-eastern and North African music, and most of what I write today moves more in that direction - pointillist melodies over simple harmonic structures.

"Packed Her Things", 2002.

I assume you feel comfortable playing with foreign musicians.
I haven't had foreign musicians play with me, but most of the musicians I've played with have been steeped in one or more of these music styles and have taught me a lot: Marguerite Ostro is a wonderful klezmer player and has studied many Eastern European styles, especially Greek and Rembetika from the 30's, Yates Brown is the only "Arabic banjo" player I've ever heard (though he's also American), and also plays in a local Arabic orchestra. Lila Sklar, who still plays with us from time to time is steeped in Arabic music as well as Balkan music. I can't emphasize enough how much these brilliant musicians around me take this music to levels I haven't imagined. I present a piece and they run with it.

Again, run towards the East. Tell us about Memory, the Ensemble's latest.
Most of the album, as the name implies, is a bit of a look back -towards what I've been through as a musician and the memories those times bring me: I mentioned that most of what I'm writing now leans more toward the austere melodies of middle-eastern music: "Nowhere Else” from the new CD would reflect this more. Much of it reflects more of the "French" feel - like the Brassens-like melody of "Sometimes Never," and the Manouche style of "Seriously." "Memory" is one of the first pieces I ever wrote for the accordion, and I remember a certain Hungarian girl who used to come out from the kitchen at my restaurant gig whenever I played it and close her eyes and lean up against the wall. "If" is a...quite humble look towards South America. Without being too biographical about it all, it's that sort of thing.

Your music does not sound played by U.S. Americans. At all.
I'm aware that for many American audiences this music sounds exotic and "European" but I also know that around the World this music is clearly American; and it is that, but with a fresh outlook, an open ear and relieved of the burden of 50 years of rock music. It's music that wants to communicate with people and music around the world and from many different times.

More on the pPE: 
Their first four albums:
A note about a 2006 performance at Pachamama, San Francisco:
Official site:


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