James Crabb performs Piazzolla with the ACO_credit Nic Walker

Interview with James Crabb

The accordion virtuoso on the power of live music, and why Piazzolla’s music haunts you for so long after you have heard it.

“Playing music for a live audience is irreplaceable.”

Classical accordion virtuoso and arranger James Crabb is currently touring as a guest soloist in Piazzolla with Richard Tognetti and the ACO, and he couldn’t be more thrilled to be back playing the music he loves to live audiences.

“The chemistry you have as a communicator can’t be achieved through a screen, even when you know people are listening,” he confides after the first live concert at Sydney’s City Recital Hall. “It’s just not the same as sensing people breathing, and actually reacting spontaneously to what you’re doing.”

He adds: “The other special thing is just sitting in the same room with my colleagues, and being able to make music together, and share these experiences.”


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Crabb plays a classical accordion which is more similar, in terms of the music you can play, to a piano or a harpsichord, than it is to its closer cousin, the traditional folk accordion. He had begun playing on the more traditional instrument – “my dad was a self-taught accordionist” – but discovered the classical accordion halfway through high school, just as he was looking for new challenges with his music-making.

“The classical accordion is a later invention, and it’s another world. You are able to play harpsichord music and piano music exactly from the score, and with melodies in both hands,” he says.

With the complexity of the repertoire now available to him, Crabb went on to study and dedicate his career to the rich and rewarding instrument.

“The classical accordion has the same chord button system as a traditional accordion, but it also has a switch, which changes the way that the mechanics work inside the instrument,” Crabb explains. “Once it’s switched, I get a mirror image of my right hand, so I can play melodies in both hands, with a range of eight octaves.” For anyone who knows their organ music, apparently it’s almost like a two-manual organ once switched. Pretty powerful.

James Crabb performs Piazzolla with the ACO_credit Nic Walker

And luckily for Australian audiences, we have the opportunity to see the instrument in action in the evocative music of Astor Piazzolla during the ACO’s current concert tour.

Letting us in on what we can expect from the Argentinian composer, Crabb says, “Piazzolla’s music, as he said himself, ‘smells of tango’, so it’s definitely not tango music that you would dance to, but he uses ‘milonga’ rhythm, which is a music form that preceded the tango, so it’s really interesting.”

And, according to Crabb, Piazzolla “has a wonderful gift of writing melodies that haunt you and really stay with you forever.”

“Piazzolla’s music is also about the opportunity to improvise around a theme, and in the concert situation that’s perfectly suited to the ACO,” Crabb says.

“Spontaneous music-making and risk taking is all part of this music-making. And, for me, music is all about having fun and expressing myself in every shape and form. It’s a real outlet for a musician to be able to do that on stage, and being able to do that again, with the ACO and Piazzolla, is just so special.”

Piazzolla is touring to Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. Click here to check dates, book tickets and find out more.