Sweet Musette

The Baguette Quartette keeps French accordion music alive -- with a little help from Gypsies, tramps, and thieves

"There are millions of accordionists in France -- that's why I'm here," says Lavault, only half-jokingly. "They have all been to accordion school, but the material they use is sad. It's why so many people can't stand the accordion -- it's like playing the most famous Mozart piece or Bach piece that every piano student studies. Luckily, I didn't go to accordion school, so it's fresh for me."

Instead, Lavault apprenticed with Gypsy bands that played wild Eastern European music, entertaining diners and club-hoppers throughout Paris. The Gypsies showed her how to play with passion, while also giving her a taste of what the old bal musette scene was like.

"I worked with a guitarist, and he had two prostitutes," Lavault says. "We would finish around 2 a.m., and then he would go check on his women. Betting on horses was also a very important thing. When I played with Romanian Gypsies, they would go out and bet everything on horses during the break. So I would be sure to get my part of the tips before they went out."

Jennifer C. Hunter


Friday, Nov. 30, at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50 in advance and $17.50 at the door

(510) 548-1761

Freight & Salvage Coffee House, 1111 Addison (at University), Berkeley

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Eventually, Lavault grew restless. In 1992, after visiting California to play at a wedding, she decided to move to the Bay Area. The following year Lavault founded the Baguette Quartette with violinist and Berkeley native Rachel Durling, a veteran of experimental jazz groups such as the Hieroglyphics Ensemble and the Speakeasy String Quartet. After 1998's Rendez-vous, the Quartette added guitarist Will Bernard, best known for his stints with Beth Custer, the Coup, and T.J. Kirk, the jazz-funk group he started with fellow Berkeley High grad Charlie Hunter. A self-described Francophile, Bernard says he was drawn to the material because it was different than his usual electric groups and it gave him the chance to explore the Gypsy jazz style pioneered by French guitarist Django Reinhardt.

"Most of the guitarists who played musette in the '30s and '40s played in that kind of style," Bernard explains. "I've always been a fan of it. It's very different from other kinds of jazz styles, like bebop or later."

"Plus, it's all acoustic, so I don't go from a gig with my ears ringing," he laughs.

Bernard's lively riffs can be heard on the new album, particularly on the upbeat Gus Viseur tune "Matelotte," which is a striking example of the kind of swing the prewar Parisians had perfected.

But the infusion of new sounds shouldn't upset the Baguette Quartette's Gaul-fixated audience, which ranges from habitués of San Francisco's Cafe Claude to residents of the East Bay hills. In fact, its fan base is bound to increase shortly, thanks to local entertainment giant Pixar Studios and its new computer-animated film, Monsters, Inc. When the movie's shaggy, slithery heroes make their voyage to Paris, it is the sound of musette -- and Lavault's accordion -- that greets them. Lavault hasn't seen the film yet, but she looks forward to telling friends and family back in France, many of whom find her fascination with old-fashioned styles to be amusingly peculiar.

Lavault readily admits that she traffics in a mythologized, nostalgic image of France, tapping into the romantic yearnings many Americans project onto Paris and Provence. "People here -- I'm speaking of Berkeley -- people go to France all the time," she says. "I don't know how they manage it ... I mean, I don't even go to Paris as often as they do! But there are so many of them. Paris just makes people dream, and I let them dream. I'm a dreamer, too; I build a show that is very poetical, and we all together jump into a world that maybe never existed."

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