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The Music Man
He is a world champion on his instrument.
In fact, he became one of the youngest musicians to ever win an American championship.
Cory Pesaturo, 26, is not yet a household name, even though he’s been globally prominent on his instrument since he began playing at age nine. Cory’s relative obscurity could be because he specializes in the accordion.
Cory started his career as an acoustic accordionist, and has since transformed the instrument. He is one of only a handful of musicians to win a world championship on both acoustic and digital accordion. In addition to all that, he’s also won a world championship in jazz accordion.
He performed on four occasions at the White House and played at seven other public and private events for President Bill Clinton. In 1999 he performed at a prestigious state dinner.
More fun facts: Cory graduated as an accordionist from the New England Conservatory of Music, a rare occurrence indeed for a traditional conservatory. His prominence on has given him the opportunity to play around the world, collaborate with Wynton Marsalis, take the stage on “Late Night with David Letterman,” and accompany a handful of “American Idol” performers.
Beyond his exalted status in the squeezebox world, Cory is a masterful and versatile musical talent, able to play accordion in any genre: classical, jazz, klezmer, folk, pop, and anything else he’s asked to do. Just don’t ask him to play a polka.
Cory has also placed his work in television programs, video games, and dance clubs, where he digs improvising on the accordion behind techno DJs.
In fact, he has revolutionized the technology behind the accordion and has managed to bring what has always been a quaint and antiquated musical sound into the mainstream and beyond. His electric accordion, with wild LED lights and flaming design, is partially responsible for that. “People are sticklers when it comes to the acoustic accordion,” he said, “but if you play an electric accordion, you can more easily establish it as a cool, hip and accepted instrument. Then you can make your own rules.”
Whether he’s improvising through a Bach composition, dueting with partner and violinist Yasmine Azaiez, or ripping it up on the dance floor, he can play it all, as he turns the accordion into a mind-boggling spectrum of sound. In Cory’s hands, it is anything but just another instrument. Once you witness his virtuosity, and versatility—not to mention his ability to simply accompany as well as lead—you know you’re listening to one of the best musicians ever to lay his hands on those buttons.
“I’m always pushing to be a great musician that happens to play the accordion, rather than simply an accordionist that plays the accordion,” he says. “I’m trying to change the image of the Lawrence Welk idea of an accordion player that has run like a virus through the opinions of the country for 50 years now.”
That he has. And he’s only just begun.
Check out Cory Pesaturo. He’s got over a hundred videos on YouTube, a Wikipedia entry, and a web page with his name on it. If you’re looking for a unique talent, with consummate ability, musical wherewithal, and boundless musical potential,
you’ve found your man: Cory Pesaturo.
Just don’t ask him to play a polka. Or anything else you are used to hearing on an accordion.
When going for the world title, Cory Pesaturo did what any worthy champion would do. He improvised, he moved to the moment. He called on his experience and on all the people who influenced him in his rich, full musical life.
He is a mere 25 but a world champion. He is the first person to win world championships on the digital, acoustic and jazz accordion.
Yes, the accordion, the stomach Steinway, the instrument with dusty connections to Lawrence Welk and guys wearing shiny shirts. And, of course, “Lady of Spain.”
The accordion is an instrument with bellows and a keyboard and an image problem. Pesaturo says only half kiddingly that he’s glad the accordion died because that means he can bring it back.
“Someone has to go out there and make it cool,” he says. “And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
And he’s doing it with the help of a self-described freelance mad scientist. That would be J.D. Fontanella, who approaches his work with the wish that there was more work to do.
“The problem is people don’t ask for weird enough stuff,” says Fontanella.
But Pesaturo asked. He and Fontanella met four years ago in the Big Nazo Band.
“I realized he was pretty much a genius,” says Pesaturo.
They talked about the accordion, about bringing it out of the shadows and making it an instrument people would notice.
“I wanted the keys to light up when I play,” says Pesaturo.
Now, as he straps on what was once a basic accordion, he checks a small computer screen at the top which is his guide to the things his accordion can do. He runs his fingers over the keys. Then he plays, with an amazing charge of energy and speed.
And the lights flash all over the keys. They flash to the music. This is not the accordion as we know it. It is a show of its own. Fontanella has it wired.
“The hardest part was coming up with something that could go as fast as Cory can,” he says.
Fontanella’s apartment near Providence City Hall is a fascinating workshop filled with keyboards and tools and containers of things a mad scientist needs close at hand. One of his projects, among many, is building generators powered by bicycles.
“I like good ideas,” he says. “I’m involved in several good ideas that are underfunded.”
He studied musical composition in college, played a lot of piano. He toured with some bands, including one that had all its equipment stolen after a show in New York.
A few years back, Fontanella found a beat-up keyboard in a dumpster behind Lupo’s in Providence.
“I kept finding stuff to fix. I started to build my own instruments.”
He builds and he fixes and he looks for ideas that can take shape in his workshop. With Pesaturo, he has created an electric accordion with sights and sounds never seen or heard before. He talks of affecting music with movement, of sensor technology and motion tracking.
“It’s better to make an instrument and learn what it does. That’s the best way to play.”
He and Pesaturo continue. They talk of developing an accordion that won’t look like an accordion at all. It might be three-sided. And if they create it, it will be one more step in Pesaturo’s effort to give the accordion some sizzle. His generation, he thinks, is ready for an accordion that’s cool.
“The accordion is like a huge oil field that hasn’t been tapped,” he says.
He was 9 when his father, Fred, took out the accordion he hadn’t played in a lot of years and asked his son if he wanted to give it a try.
“If I’d been 12 or 13, I might have said I didn’t want to play the accordion,” says Pesaturo.
But he was 9, and he picked it up. His father took him for lessons with Tulio Gasperini, a well-known player and teacher.
“I was never a practicer. I practiced less than an hour a day. But I was listening. I listened a lot, and when I was 10 or 11 I was progressing quicker. I thought, maybe I’ve got something here.”
He discovered jazz early and that helped fuel the desire to play. When he was 15, he won a national competition in Minneapolis.
After graduating from Cumberland High School, he went to the New England Conservatory in Boston. He loved it. He loved the atmosphere, the high expectations and the way students would trade favorite pieces of music.
“I was the only person to go there for accordion and graduate in accordion.”
And he traveled — to Canada where he won the world jazz competition, to Finland for the acoustic and to New Zealand for the digital. New Zealand, he says, is the best place he’s ever been.
Pesaturo says the ability to improvise has set him apart. Too many players, he says, are too robotic.
Robotic he is not.
He plays with all kinds of people, including violinist and singer Yasmine Azaiez, who he says is one of the great musicians he has worked with. She will join him Aug. 11 at “CumberlandFest 2013” at Diamond Hill State Park, Route 114, Cumberland. They will play Gypsy, improvisation and pop.
Performances get under way at 5 p.m. with a concert by the Young Giants of the Jazz World. Pesaturo will join them. Pesaturo and Azaiez will play at 6 p.m. At 7, Pesaturo will join the band backing up another Cumberland native, Kelley Lennon.
Do you know someone Bob Kerr should write about? Drop him a line at 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902. Or, email bkerr@ providencejournal.com. Feel free to attach photos — high-resolution jpegs, please — and music files.
A Cumberland musician brings the accordion back into vogue.
Cory Pesaturo makes the accordion cool. The twenty-five-year-old has performed with Wynton Marsalis and for Bill Clinton, and this year, he played alongside actor and guitarist Johnny Depp and the band Bill Carter and the Blame on “The Late Show” with David Letterman. He flies all over the world, travelling 75,000 to 100,000 miles a year to perform at and judge international accordion competitions, and he has won world championships on acoustic, digital and jazz accordion. At age fifteen, he became a National Accordion Champion. He’s also a pioneer in the freesledding world and he’s composed official lists of records set by hurricanes that are used by national hurricane centers.
The wavy-haired prodigy carries his boxy instrument with a strap around his neck. “I am trying to find a way to make it sexy,” he says. “I’ve tried playing it behind my head, but it still looks like I’m carrying an air conditioner.” So he turned to another hobby for inspiration: Formula 1. Tricked out in flames of red, orange and yellow, and installed with interactive flashing lights by an engineer, his accordion is custom-designed with help from Le Mans, a company that creates skins for Indy cars. The accordion is his ticket into the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August, where he’ll perform, and he’s currently building a new accordion with a different shape that may be painted by West Coast Customs car remodeling company.
Pesaturo’s mission is to revolutionize the squeeze box, once popular on “The Lawrence Welk Show” – and when he was twelve, he subbed in for an ill Myron Floren during a traveling appearance. He says the accordion died when rock music took over, but it’s becoming more common in bands like the Dropkick Murphys, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. “My generation grew up playing the guitar, piano and drums, so the fact that the accordion died has created a new aura around it,” Pesaturo says. “It’s coming back as something different, and that’s what I’m trying to push.”
Winning championships has given him some clout, leading to some of the best experiences he’s had to date. “It furthers what I am trying to do,” he says. “It gives me more credibility when I play a flamed accordion with lights on it.”