Sam Reider’s Improbable Career on Accordion

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Sam Reider and his band, the Human Hands, will perform at Sylvester Manor this weekend.

Within 48 hours of playing his first accordion, Sam Reider promptly broke it.

“I left it in the trunk of my car,” he groaned, “and, apparently, you can’t do that. All the reeds are held in place with wax, so if you leave it in your trunk, the wax melts and it just destroys it.”

The lifelong pianist had a sticky situation on his hands and a decision to make. He could either shell out $700 for the repair “and learn to play the damn thing,” he said, or call his new musical venture quits.

With a dent in his bank account, the determined musician forged ahead, mastering an instrument that would define the next chapter in his career and land him as the frontman of Sam Reider and the Human Hands, who will play a pair of shows on Saturday night at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.

To be clear, these are not concerts of straight accordion music, Reider said. He doesn’t listen to much even himself.

“If I’m going to turn on music just to enjoy, chances are, the accordion is not in that,” he said. “I’m going to turn on the Beatles or Stevie Wonder or Tchaikovsky or Bill Evans, the classics. I have a broad musical taste, and it probably doesn’t involve a lot of accordion.”

Reider’s earliest childhood memories are fragments of the same melody, played over and over again by his father, his nimble fingers composing as they danced across the piano. By age 4, he was studying classical piano and, by age 11, his interests shifted to jazz — embracing the freedom and improvisation that came with it.

By the time he graduated high school, he had been named Outstanding Soloist at the North Texas Jazz Festival. He was a member of the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, and performed in the rhythm section of the Clifford Brown/Stan Getz All-Stars — as selected by the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts.

But when he landed at Columbia University, he chose to major in American Studies, which led him to Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, and eventually, American folk music.

“In order to play that music, the piano was no longer the right instrument, and I happened to have this old accordion my teacher had given me, just sitting in my basement,” Reider said. “Half as a joke, I started taking it around to gigs and it kind of caught on. It was funny. It was like nothing that I’d ever dreamt that I would do, but I started to love it and I was singing and playing these bluegrass tunes and I started to think, ‘Wow, this is kind of different. It’s a little bit of a niche. Maybe I’ll take it more seriously.’”

Aside from a right-hand keyboard, the accordion offered a completely different experience from his classical and jazz competition days — a departure from the intense passion and pressure he felt surrounding the piano, and a move toward roots music and redefining American music himself.

“All of a sudden, the accordion presented itself as this blank canvas,” he said. “I had never taken a lesson. There were no expectations whatsoever about what it should sound like. It was open for me to invent. And that is the pith of my artistic expression: I love to create, I love to compose, I’m terrible at imitating people. And the accordion was a perfect way to do that.”

With his accordion strapped to his back, Reider’s interest in global music took him to places like China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Estonia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, collaborating with international artists as a musical ambassador with the U.S. Department of State.

“It was a dream always to do that. My whole life, I’ve loved adventures, I’ve loved dreaming about having exotic adventures,” he said. “The program is called American Music Abroad. It’s been going on since the 1950s. They first sent Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington overseas during the Cold War to do soft diplomacy, and I was lucky enough to win the grant first in 2013, and then a couple years later.”

Two weeks ago, Reider learned he won the grant once more, this time with Human Hands, who will travel to destinations unknown sometime in 2020 — and, undoubtedly, tap musical inspiration for the follow-up to their debut album, “Too Hot To Sleep.”

“All the music from the record is almost like a musical travelogue. But it’s also original,” Reider said. “Whenever I’m overseas, we end up working with a local musician, and I always learn a whole lot. And we pick up really beautiful music along the way, too. Then I’ll go home and end up writing something that might just be inspired by a memory of the trip.”

His moments of most intense creativity are when he is too tired to think about anything other than music, which is precisely when it pours out. He has constant travel, time zone changes and lifelong insomnia to thank for that, he said.

Reider brings all his compositions to the band — Alex Hargreaves on violin, Eddie Barbash on saxophone, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Roy Williams on guitar, and Dave Speranza on bass — for help with arrangements before they workshop the songs and, finally, press record.

“We were these two cliques that came together to form this band — myself and the saxophonist from the jazz world, and the other folks from the bluegrass world. We’d known about each other for years, but didn’t meet until we all moved to Brooklyn,” Reider said. “These are all my best friends. That has its challenges of course, too. Because they’re my friends, I definitely feel very responsible all the time for everyone’s wellbeing and satisfaction with the group, and it’s a very close-knit group. We travel so much together that it’s great that we have such a good rapport.”

For their appearance on Shelter Island, the ensemble will perform “Too Hot To Sleep” in its entirety, as well as a selection of new music. “We’re hopefully going to play a totally brand new one that I’m just finishing up right now,” Reider said.

There, the accordion player will have his Petosa in tow — a far cry from his starter accordion, all those years ago, he said.

“It’s very small, it’s portable, and it’s covered in leopard print,” Reider said with a laugh. “It’s super ridiculous looking. But yes, it is definitely a step up.”

Sam Reider and the Human Hands will play a pair of concerts on Saturday, May 11, at 6 and 8 p.m. at the Sylvester Manor House Music Room, located at 80 North Ferry Road on Shelter Island. Advance tickets are $30 and $35 at the door. For more information, call (631) 749-0626 or visit samreidermusic.com.

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