Alumni Profile – Victor Prieto '02

The Squeeze in New York

By Mary Hurley

  Victor Prieto '02

Victor Prieto '02 is in Berklee's record book as a first: the only student in the college's history to pursue a performance major in accordion. "I wanted to study jazz and accordion," Prieto recalls. The Berklee alum is a native of Galicia, Spain, who studied classical accordion at a conservatory before enrolling in Berklee in 1998. He specifically wanted to attend Berklee-"one of the best schools in the world for music in general," Prieto opines-despite the fact that the college had no accordion teachers and the jazz world has hardly embraced the instrument that most associate with polkas, reels, and Lawrence Welk reruns. But both he and Berklee were up for the challenge.

Now based in New York City, Prieto is transforming perceptions about the accordion and incorporating jazz, classical, tango, and Celtic music And in the process, Prieto is creating new sounds and techniques for the instrument.

Since making New York City his home base in 2002, Prieto has demonstrated the accordion's versatility. It's a place where, like many, he's found "the competition is brutal." Nevertheless, he has applied his instrument's dulcet sounds in a variety of musical settings, from backing jazz singers to performances with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Prieto also recorded the selection "Panxoliña: A Galician Carol" with Yo-Yo Ma on the cellist's Grammy-winning recording, Songs of Joy & Peace. "Amazing," he says of Ma. "He makes you understand the music."

The accordionist regularly performs with the Victor Prieto Trio and has appeared in such revered New York venues as the Blue Note, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the Lincoln Center, and more. Prieto is also a prolific composer and has written many of the titles that have appeared on his four recordings. Of the composition process, he says, "Things just come out by themselves; you play what your ear forces you to play. You're hearing it, so you have to find a way to play it."


Accordion Afficionado


"Chances are you have never heard the accordion played the way Victor Prieto plays it," says a review of Rollo-Coaster-Prieto's recording with soprano saxophonist Chris Cheek '91 — on the website All About Jazz. "Indeed, much as Toots Thielemans established the harmonica in the jazz lore by huffing and puffing bop lines through his teeth, Prieto breaks the glass ceiling hovering about the crown of Cyrill Demian's patented invention, squeezing improvised airs with a technical assurance that deserves more widespread recognition."

Prieto agrees that masters of the accordion deserve more respect and recognition in this country. "The accordion is one of the most complex instruments you can play," he says. "You can play any type of music. It's a really intense, unbelievably powerful instrument."

Prieto contends that it takes about 15 years to become proficient on the accordion. "It's a really difficult instrument, and it's really expensive," he says. Children start out learning on a small instrument before taking on the full-sized accordion. But even the smaller version is costly.

He began playing the instrument at eight years old. "My mother loved the accordion," Prieto says. "She's the reason I play it and pushed me to pursue my career." In Spain, where he grew up, accordion playing is part of a long and proud musical tradition — particularly in the Galicia region. Located in the country's northwest corner, Galicia was once occupied by Celtic people. Consequently Celtic music is still heard there today.

Prieto's early musical influences ranged from European traditional and classical music to the jazz of Chick Corea and John Coltrane. While at Berklee, he studied under the direction of jazz pianist and professor Joanne Brackeen. She's played with Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, led her own trio and quartet, and was the first female member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. But Brackeen has never played accordion.

She was a tough teacher nonetheless, Prieto reports. "Joanne helped me in many ways," he recalls. "I had so many questions to ask her. 'I want to know this, I want to know that.' I said to her, 'I will ask you questions, and you tell me what you think I should do.'"

Ironically, Brackeen remembers Prieto being a tough student. "He had all the questions," she says. "He was asking for the world, and so I had to give it to him. He didn't just ask for it, he demanded it."

Brackeen and Prieto figured out sounds on the piano that enabled him to devise a distinctive harmonic approach to his instrument. It was "very intense, every lesson," as Brackeen put it. "We got all the sounds we wanted to get out [of his accordion]. It was an interesting challenge, and we worked at it. I wanted to teach him because he wanted to learn."

Noted bass player and Berklee faculty member Oscar Stagnaro, who appreciates the accordion, also helped Prieto. "It's a different color," Stagnaro says. Prieto performed in Stagnaro's Latin ensemble that included a blind percussionist and a violinist from Taiwan who was unfamiliar with Latin music. "In my ensemble, he had to adapt the piano parts," Stagnaro says. Such experiences gave Prieto a foundation in jazz. "In an ensemble, you can learn theory and harmony, the concept of how they work together, the interplay, the versatility, playing different styles," Stagnaro recalls. "I congratulate him. He had courage; it's a very hard instrument — not easy at all."

And to promote the instrument, Prieto figures that Berklee is a good place to start. As Berlee's first performance major with accordion for his principal instrument, Prieto hopes not to be its only.