Sunday, February 13, 2011

Denis Pépin

I wrote the following review several years ago and attempted to publish it on RootsWorld. The "editor" said that he could not publish my review, because the fact that I actually learned to play the accordion from Denis gives the review the appearance of bias. Never mind the fact that this fellow's website links reviews to his other site, which sells CDs -- so I guess his own positive descriptions of recordings are not subject to the same standards of "journalistic integrity" as unsolicited reviews of CDs that he does not sell...
Needless to say, eventually I posted the review to the "old" Here it is again for your reading pleasure:

Review of "Denis Pépin" (2003)
Fans of French Canadian music recognize the name Denis Pépin as belonging to one of Québec's foremost accordionists, an outstanding player whose recordings are notoriously difficult to track down. His earlier cassettes, two of which featured Pépin playing marvelously synchronized duets with fiddler Lisa Ornstein, have been out of print for years, and there is no sign that his much sought after instructional video will become available again any time soon. Therefore it was a moment of great pleasure for me when I discovered that Pépin is now offering a new independent release of his phenomenal music.

Originally from a region in which the three-row diatonic accordion is favored, Denis Pépin pursued the one-row accordion after encountering Philippe Bruneau, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. Along with Bruneau, Pépin pioneered the technique of crossing all three rows of the otherwise unwieldy three-row accordion - many three-row players in Québec still play along each row individually! His musical exchanges with the Irish melodeon player Keith Corrigan of Valcartier and fabled accordion builder and player Marcel Messervier of Montmagny shaped his interpretations of tunes for the one-row accordion. More recently, Pépin found himself drawn to the unique style and accordion mastery of American Irish box player Joe Derrane, whom Pépin accompanied on piano while Derrane was performing in Québec. This encounter led him eventually to commission a special 25-button two-row D/C# accordion from Marcel Messervier, an instrument that would allow him to mimic the range of the fiddle needed to emulate Irish and Cape Breton fiddle styles. (See photo)

This CD release offers the listener the unique opportunity to hear Pépin's expertise on all of his instruments. The first five tracks feature the three-row accordion; here, one listens as Pépin defies the stuffy convention that dictates that the three-row accordion in A/D/G is not suitable for Irish tunes. Next come six tracks played on one-row melodeons in C and A. At times, the listener will be shocked to realize that these petite instruments, with only ten buttons in a major diatonic scale, can fleetingly conjure the illusion of chromaticism when touched by the magic of the master's fingers. The listener is truly treated to a showcase of the outermost limits of the petit accordéon. The final three tracks showcase his D/C# Messervier ("Le Pépin III") and offer unique interpretations of fiddle tunes.

Throughout the recording, the listener will hear Pépin's own piano accompaniment, which is tasteful and full of joy for the music. Stylistically, one hears echoes of John Kimmel, the German-American who made the earliest recordings of Irish accordion music. Kimmel's influence on Pépin is particularly apparent on the track "La Patrouille Internationale," in which Pépin links several recognizable melodies, including "La Marseillaise." While the impact of Philippe Bruneau, Marcel Messervier, and Joe Derrane's playing is felt, Pépin's style is unique. He has a light, smooth touch, and his ornamentation, while technically breathtaking, never distracts from the melody. His choice of tunes reflects his vast and carefully acquired repertoire, drawing on historical recordings as well as his musician-friends. The album is sure to delight lovers of French Canadian accordion music and to pleasantly surprise listeners of Irish music and fans of melodeon music in general. Given the fate of previous independent releases of Quebecois artists, I recommend that you track down this recording before it, too, goes out of print! (review written May 31, 2004)

The recording is now available through Trente Sous Zero. (By the way, Guy is also a friend -- and Thirty Below Zero is a great source for French Canadian recordings and other learning materials!)
If anyone listens to this recording and finds that I was simply blinded by the fact that Denis is my friend and teacher, I'd be interested in hearing from you! Otherwise, I stand by my recommendation: Listen to this CD, it is an amazing -- and rare -- treat!


  1. Andy, nice review. You don't have to publish this comment. Just want to say that longer pieces like this (and the Max piece) if you could break up your paragraphs that would make them easier on the eyes.

  2. Gary,
    I had paragraphs, I swear! For some reason, I'm losing the formatting when I "publish" the blog entry. I've gone back into it to break it up with some spaces -- hopefully that will help.

  3. Denis is indeed a virtuoso! I'm lucky to live in Québec and to see him from time to time. He now plays a 27 button beltuna D-C#. It's the quickest box i've ever played! It almost plays before you! : )

    Nice blog! Keep up the good work

  4. Hi Robin,
    Thank you! I learned to play from Denis's video in 2001, and then from him in person when I lived in Quebec during the summer of 2002. He is a fantastic musician and a very kind person.