Q&A: Accordion Extraordinaire Cory Pesaturo

A Cumberland musician brings the accordion back into vogue.

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.”

Watch Pesaturo perform Aug. 11 at Cumberlandfest. corypesaturo.com

Watch Pesaturo perform in this pop music video with Yasmine Azaiez.

Pesaturo at the Primus Ikaalinen World Championship (Finland)

Extended Q&A

What’s your summer schedule like? July and August are my busiest. I’ll be going to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the mecca of the car world. I’m a big car guy, so I try to mix my career and hobbies together. I will perform there, and it’s my ticket in. The events that week are $500−$2,000 or more, or you get paid to play it. Then I go to the Cotati Accordion Festival in San Francisco. Next will be performing and judging at the World Accordion Championships.

How did you get into the accordion? My dad played. I always say the only reason I play the accordion is because he asked me when I was nine. If he had asked me when I was thirteen, I would have said, “No, I want to play guitar. I want to play drums.”

How did you get to play at the White House? It happened because I won a National Competition for my age group in New Orleans and my uncle sent in a tape to the White House; they apparently thought it was cool. And Bill Clinton loves the arts and music, so he would bring in amateur musicians to play at the annual Christmas event every year. My dad kept asking the assistant to get me to play near where Bill Clinton was. He said, “Who is that accordion player and bring him over,” and the rest is history. Then I did the State Dinner the next year, for the President of Hungary. They said I was the youngest person to ever play the State Dinner, but I don’t know if that is true. We’ve met eleven times total and we still send letters back and forth.

What was it like playing the accordion growing up? At fifteen, I won the National Championships at the youngest age that someone had done it. I didn’t go to a studio, I had a private teacher, so I was always kind of an outcast. There is a whole clique with the accordion world, and I think there was some connection to the fact that the accordion had basically died and the world it exists in is so small. Growing up as an accordion player, you aren’t getting the same respect as someone who plays the guitar. Being the one millionth best at guitar is much easier for getting girls than being of the best at accordion.

How have you helped try to make the accordion cool? The music I play on it, and the accordion I have created and one that I am planning to create. Trying to push the boundaries with the sounds you can play on it. Diving into the one aspect that makes the accordion unique, which is the bellows. I always improvise with music. I’d get in trouble for it when I was young. Classically, you are not supposed to do that. When I found jazz at about seventeen, that’s when I realized, this is the beginning of my calling. And it was then that I really started loving the accordion. Everyone at New England Conservatory (NEC) was amazing. NEC is more versatile than just about any music university in the world. It just doesn't have the name like Juilliard. NEC has had a contemporary and jazz program since the early 70s. I owe so much of what I can do today to NEC.

What is your goal with the accordion? My goal was always to bring back the accordion. The World Championships were never on my radar, it was never a goal of mine. Honestly, and certainly not three of them. And with bringing it back, making it not just respectable, but respected.

How did the World Championships occur if you had stopped competition long ago, and what did they mean to you? When I started working with Roland in 2008 with the electronic accordion they came out with, my boss (Ron Lankford, now deceased) had told me that the World Championships were going to have a digital category. They said with the versatility you have, you should go into it. Because you can play whatever you want. That was more to my strengths. I told them I retired from competition long ago because I didn't agree with the philosophy of them, but then they said, it’s in New Zealand. New Zealand? Okay, I’ll go, I said. It was the main championship, the Coupe Mondiale (The one I'll be at in August). I went down there and I won it. Most people at the competition thought I was playing written music. They didn't even realize I was improvising. The Acoustic Championship in Finland I wanted to do because first, it was on national TV, in a country that loved accordion. Most importantly, it seemed that a musician had a better chance of winning versus other competitions where the person that practiced pieces the most and made the least amount of mistakes won. Luckily in the end, they told me my musicianship and improvisational ability were major parts in my win. It felt as if the all the things I stood for and fought for since I was twelve, had finally come full circle.

How did you get to play with Johnny Depp on “Letterman”? It was through a connection I gained from participating on the Fenway 100 album for the Red Sox. The producer, me and Joe Silva are all Cumberland natives, and Joe Silva is friends with Anton Fig, the drummer in Paul Shaffer’s band. I emailed Anton about going on the show, and then I contacted Paul’s assistant, and he said they’d put me on file. Three days later, I’m out sledding, and I get a call. He says, “There’s a band coming in and it includes a track which has an accordion on it…so if you want to come on and help them it would be great. And Johnny Depp is the other guy…” It was my first real appearance on a national tv show, which is funny because I’ve been on national television shows in three different countries, but never in my home country at that level.

Who are you most proud to have performed with? Wynton Marsalis. That was luck. I had met his percussionist at a gig in Minneapolis. He said come out and we’ll hang out and go see Wynton. We went and played with Wynton at his apartment. He saw my World Championship video on my phone. He’s one of the most amazing musicians of all-time. I am a musician that happens to play the accordion as I say. For him to accept me as a musician is more of an accomplishment than a World Championship to me.

I hear you have some other fun hobbies, like sledding? I have a million hobbies, including free-sledding. There are no set definitions, because it’s a very small sport. There’s professional sledding and free-sledding, where free-sledding is just to climb mountains and go down at your own risk. Professional sledding is when you are on actual trails made for the sport. There are special sleds we use. The Mad River Rocket is the best sled in the world. It has carving ability because we’re going through cliffs and trees. People are like, “Don’t you have to watch your hands?” And I am like, “Yes I do.” My hands are kind of important to my career. Sometimes I’ll wear hockey gloves because they have all the padding, in case you hit a tree.

And what about your talent keeping hurricane stats? I just love stats and I love weather. After the first half of the ’05 hurricane season, I was thinking there were a lot of records broken. Then Katrina happened, then Rita happened, and then Wilma, which for a weather guy, was ridiculous. Katrina gets all the news, but for a weather person, Wilma was really it. It broke so many records; lowest pressure ever recorded, different speed records, how many times it re-intensified. It had the smallest eye, three miles wide. My sophomore year in college, I spent three hours a night keeping up with the records. I made the list and kept making it better and better. I probably spent 300 hours doing it, and when it was finally done, I started sending it out to many places like the national hurricane center. The meteorologists were like, “Who the heck is this kid? This is this best list we’ve seen by far on this.” (You can take a look at the list here). I’ve made ‘07 and ’08 and '10 lists, and there hasn't really been a season that’s needed one since then, which is a good thing, because usually records mean lots of destruction. But it's a bad thing, because only destruction seems to get people really thinking about environmentalism.

But what about Hurricane Sandy? In meteorological terms, Sandy was a big storm, but it wasn’t record-setting for weather. It was record-setting for damage, which is kind of strange because it was a Category 1 hurricane. I don’t predict the weather usually. I am the kind of guy who looks at what just happened and its meaning in history and the stats behind it.

How did you get into car racing? I've been in it since I was two, mostly because of my dad. My main sport is Formula 1. In the United States, no one cares about soccer or Formula 1, but in the rest of the world, everyone cares about soccer and Formula 1. As a kid, I was always so good at racing video games. And when I’d go into a go-cart, I’d have the same success, due to my mental thinking of lines and car control. I’d see lines and breaking points in the same way that I can see and hear the line I'm going to improvise before playing it. My ability to play fast is a hand-eye coordination skill. It seems I was born with a musical talent, so I thought let’s go with that.

What is your proudest accomplishment? I’d have to go back to the Finland World Championship as I mentioned earlier, with having a philosophy to fight for form from an early age, and having so many disagree with you, and then achieving everything with that philosophy.

Where do you see yourself going from here? Trying to get famous. Trying to bring back the accordion. Once I get somewhere, I’d like to try to help some musicians who I look up to that are my age and younger than me, who are having the same problems of trying to get somewhere.

World Championships give you an extra edge on paper. At the end of the day, it furthers what I am trying to do in revolutionizing the accordion because people will listen to what I have to say. The World Championships have given me that credibility so that people say this guy’s not only trying to revolutionize it, he’s also one of the best players. It gives me more credibility when I try to play a flamed accordion with lights on it.

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