It is the rare jazz instrumentalist who gains such a total understanding of their instrument that by technical innovation they change the way the instrument is played to achieve that elusive 'sound in their head.' Jazz accordionist Tommy Gumina is such an artist. When it comes to the accordion, Gumina's modifications and amplification development are on a par with Les Paul's guitar inventions and his polytonal voicings and advanced harmonics, though distinctly different, match in instrumental significance those of pianist Bill Evans.
Gumina came from the hotbed of second-generation American accordionists who grew up in ethnic '40s Middle America where the accordion was a staple. Through his association with the Harry James Orchestra, Gumina met up with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and together they would create the most significant jazz accordion recordings of all time. These releases, such as Polytones (Mercury, 1963), are notable for Gumina's use of the accordion's inherent ability to sustain combined with his advanced harmonic techniques and DeFranco's incredible tone.
DeFranco has called them the most cutting-edge recordings of his career and Gumina reflected on their approach. "I came up with a harmonic device for the accordion called polytonalities where you play two chords at one time and the accordion is a natural for this. I play the left hand for the basic chords downstairs. For example, I play a C7 downstairs, C bass and on my right hand I will play a DMaj chord so it gives you the augmented 11/13. I came up with that sound while we had the group with Buddy...some of that stuff has six- and seven-part harmony...we had a harmonic sustaining situation because with the accordion you can really sustain as opposed to the piano which can't sustain quite as long as we can." DeFranco and Gumina were the perfect partners and cuts like the beautifully ambient "My Ship" from over 40 years ago impress with their contemporary sound and feel.
Proud of the way the two musicians melded, Gumina is in the process of rereleasing some of these difficult-to-obtain landmark recordings through his Polytone company. Gumina started the business in the '60s and since that time the greatest jazz guitarists and bassists have entrusted their tone to Tommy Gumina Polytone amps and equipment. The sound on guitarist George Benson's mega hit "Breezin'" was achieved through a Polytone 120-watt model 104. Gumina tells it: "When I first started Polytone I didn't have a background in electronics but I took a course at UCLA because I wanted to know about the business so consequently I have become fairly decent in the electronics field. Our first endorser for Polytone was [guitarist] Joe Pass and nobody was like Joe. He was unbelievable and the first guy to endorse my bass products was Ray Brown. Ray would come into my place and we would play together and we would also do a lot of the NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] shows and Ray would be there and Joe would be there and we would play right at my booth. Ray's sound was so beautiful that we would be playing and I would stop just to hear him. He really was the boss and nobody has ever got that particular sound."
Gumina's blend of electronics acumen and instrumental expertise has allowed him to develop electronic accordions such as his polychord ("It has 80 different instruments that you can play with it"); state- of-the-art amplification equipment ("My new amplifier is 170 watts RMS and it weighs only about 18 pounds and the new power amp only weighs half a pound") and produce some superb but difficult-to-obtain recordings such as his partnerships with guitarists Joe Pass (Sound Project, Polytone Productions, 1987) and Ron Escheté (Polycolors, Polytone Productions, 1990).
Gumina is pleased to know that the relatively recent fruitful interchanges among world musics and jazz, most particularly those of Latin America and Eastern Europe, have given the accordion a new place and he is contemplating going out on the road again with DeFranco. "This is what I have to do. Before Buddy and I wrap it up, Buddy is going to be 86 or 87, he and I want to do another shot. I want to really do our polytonalities and some ballads of course but I want to really get the right situation where we can smoke a little bit. I am very happy that young guys are out there playing the accordion because for so many many years a lot of times the accordion was slighted. It was strictly ethnic and they played it well but it never got beyond that and it is great that young guys are playing jazz accordion. It needs it."