In Western Civilization, the notion of ‘The Joker’ has its roots in medieval times, specifically in the figure of ‘The Jester,’ a pivotal character that commanded attention in the royal courts.
However, this archetype can be found in many other cultures; China has the Ziteng; India the Vidushakas; And even in ancient Native American culture there is evidence of this character.
More fascinating about this archetype, which seems to span the globe and cross the millennia, is its elusive nature. The Joker behaved like a chameleon. One moment, he could be a comedian. In another, a wise sage. It all depended on the perspective. Advanced jokers were almost like polymaths, who displayed a wide mastery of skills from juggling to satire to providing social commentary.
Drawing parallels to this rich tapestry of jesters, we should consider the French accordion virtuoso Vincent Peirani under a similar light, specifically in the realm of modern jazz. Jokers (ACT) is not only the name of Peirani’s latest band, but also their recent recording.
The extent to which Peirani consciously connects his legacy to this narrative is less significant, although he does demonstrate a healthy sense of humor (insert emoji here).
He says he created Jokers because he wanted a band of “wildcard musicians”– artists adept at thriving in an improvised environment, while also demonstrating the ability to pivot quickly. A joker musician should feel at ease playing any style or settings, can adapt at every juncture, akin to laying down a wildcard in a high-stakes poker match.
In forming his ‘Jokers’ band, Peirani sought musicians in this image, and found Israeli drum phenom Ziv Ravitz and the remarkably talented guitarist, Federico Casagrande.
Peirani, and his fellow musicians, can be whatever the music demands – a percussionist, a bassist, or a fiery soloist. All the musicians can play in those roles, but also have the ability to steal the show. However, their natural inclination is to blend in.
Like ‘The Joker,’ the joy and exuberance expressed by Peirani is palpable. However, there’s another aspect of his artistry that doesn’t get talked about enough, which aligns with the ethos of the modern joker: his penchant for musical mischief.
In the lore of Batman, the joker is labeled as an outsider, often ridiculed and ostracized by his peers. After being shunned and humiliated, the joker is pushed to the fringe, and enters a state of solitude. It’s there he discovers his voice, plots a revenge, and re-emerges stronger than ever.
If Peirani was seeking a popularity contest, playing the accordion wouldn’t have been the choice. But that fate wasn’t his own. As a kid, Peirani wanted to play the drums, but his strict father, a single parent, didn’t grant him that choice. He forced him to play the accordion. When Vincent showed an early aptitude, then his father demanded him to pick up another instrument – and, again, the drums weren’t on the menu. This time he had to play the clarinet, not exactly a magnet for popularity either.
During up his studies at the prestigious Nice Conservatory, Peirani, who was probably slightly resentful for his limited choices, was forced to choose between the two – and so he went with the accordion.
By 20 years of age, he had mostly made peace with the instrument and was ready to show off his wares. He began hanging out at late night jam sessions at Le Caveau des Oubliettes, which translates as The Forgotten Cave in Paris.
Night after night, Peirani would show up and dream of being invited on stage. He would warmly meet the other musicians at the nightclub. Then, they would see his instrument and have a compulsive reaction either in disdain or disinterest.
In Europe, the accordion may be revered but it also comes with baggage. You can be a hero in musette and chanson communities, yet equally reviled in counter culture circles. In the eyes of the jazz and rock cool cats, the accordion was something putrid or gauche.
Suddenly, all of his training and making his father happy seemed like a huge mistake, also a recipe for disaster for sustaining a jazz career. He was pushed further into isolation. And, things got quite bleak.
Then, one evening in the Forgotten Cave, a forgotten accordionist, discarded and disgruntled, had a confrontation with a local drummer. The drummer spilled a full pint of beer accidentally on Peirani’s back. The drummer felt especially bad, probably for all those nights of turning a cold shoulder. Peirani told the drummer there was only one way he’d forgive him. He must finally invite the accordionist onstage for a performance.
“It could have been that night when The Joker was born,” Peirani says with a wry smile.
For a career that started in the tubes, the accordionist quickly ascended to becoming an artistic anomaly – “Hey! Check out this crazy French accordion player who can play everything and swing heavier than Dirk Diggler!” His immense talent could not be denied. He paved his own path, propelled by the strength of his character molded from the adversity he experienced.
Somehow, the baggage of the accordion suddenly became Peirani’s secret weapon, especially with his naturally rebellious approach to it. He took glee in flipping the script. He became a cultural darling, from French jazz outcast to a cause célèbre.
The most prestigious French prizes followed, including the Victoire du Jazz. His days of playing alone quickly evaporated too. Musicians from many stripes summoned his services from Cecile McLorin Salvant, Richard Bona, to Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra, to Pat Metheny, to Stromae. He was eager to accept almost any music opportunity from the strictest classical settings to the most jazz free. Yet something remained unfulfilled. He didn’t prioritize his own art.
But then, the pandemic happened. Every artist will tell you this period was an extreme test of fortitude. But for Peirani, it may have been the opposite. He was ready for a break and chance for reinvention. And, we know ‘the Joker’ thrives in solitary when plotting his next move.
Every morning, Peirani woke up at 4:30am and locked himself inside his cellar: a newly refurbished (homemade) recording studio. He sharpened his skills specifically as a composer and producer. He discovered radical ways he could plug-in his accordion and generate new effects. He listened to his inner voices. He created brilliant compositions like “Circus of Light.” This is what happens when a joker is left alone to only serve his muse.
Instead of staying on a conventional path, studying the calcified music “the experts” told him to play, he dusted off the rock music from his childhood. He turned to distortion. Out of that creative alchemy, he brandishes a new album, kicking off with “This is the New Shit” by Mariln Manson. It’s an anthem which sets the tone, but it’s also a prank, a social commentary as he trolls stodgy jazz and classical institutions.
The band plays nods to Jeff Buckley (“Dream Brother”) and Led Zeppelin (“Kashmir to Heaven”) but also celebrates rockers living today, not-so-quickly recognized by the intelligentsia, Bishop Briggs (“River”) and Trent Reznor (“Copy of A.”)
In this fashion, Vincent Peirani flashes his super villain costume and destabilizes the same community which reveres him. He challenges the norm and pushes musical inquiry while delivering something devilishly rocking, oftentimes chaotic, but nothing short of jubilant.