Take Five mit Funken

There are no windows in Alex Meixner's basement office, only posters of trumpet heroes. An upright piano fills one corner. A trumpet lies across the desk. In the middle of the floor sits a bulky black case that turns out to be hiding an accordion.

man playing horn under tree

"My mom would say I started playing music in the womb," says Meixner, who recently finished a master's degree in music at Penn State. "There's a coffee table back home that's covered with drumstick marks from when I was two years old. At three-and-a-half I started playing the piano. At four-and-a-half I was the co-host of my dad's radio show."

That would be the long-running "International Showcase," still broadcast Saturday mornings (right after "Music of India") on WMUH, from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The "Showcase" specializes in the accordion-driven, dance-compulsory folk music of central and eastern Europe. To the untrained ear, it sounds mostly like polka.

Meixners have been making music in the Allentown area for 75 years. "My great grandfather migrated to Coplay, Pennsylvania from Burgenland—Austria," Alex says. "He played cornet and violin. He was a kappellemeister—a band leader." The meister's children, including Alex's grandfather, were drafted for the family orchestra. "After World War II, my grandfather and my uncles had dance bands in the [Lehigh] Valley. They played big-band stuff—but they also played polka.

"My dad started playing gigs in those bands at age 10—playing string bass while standing on an accordion case," Alex says. Eventually Al Meixner had a band of his own. When Alex and his sisters came along, they joined the act, billed as the Meixner Kinder.

His sisters have since retired from the stage. Alex, however, proved to be a wunderkind on the button-box, a folky cousin of the piano accordion and a staple of the Austrian, Slovenian, and South German polka sounds. Before he was shaving, he was recording his own CDs (with titles like Button Box Dynamite and Like Father, Like Son) and being hailed as "the most exciting young button-box player in America today." At 14, he was featured on a national TV special with Sandy Duncan. At 18, he and his father engineered and played on a record by Walt Ostanek, "Canada's Polka King," that was awarded a Grammy.

The trumpet was Alex Meixner's fourth instrument. Trumpet (or flugelhorn) has an important place in the Austrian polka style, he explains, and that was his first motivation. But in the early 1990s, when Al Meixner moved his family to Florida to take a job as a performer and arranger at Disney's Epcot Center, young Alex was exposed to all kinds of new influences. "At our house in Orlando," he remembers, "there were always professional musicians coming for dinner. One night it would be jazz musicians, the next night a mariachi band." He absorbed everything he heard, but soon zeroed in on jazz, and before long began winning state-wide competitions and scholarships for his playing. "When I was a senior in high school I met Dave Brubeck," he says. "He had a really big influence on me."

At Ithaca College, where Meixner went to study trumpet performance and music education, "I immersed myself in jazz. My professor was a guitarist named Steve Brown, who is completely into hard, grooving bop jazz." As a student and after graduating from Ithaca, he continued touring with his father, playing mostly polka in gigs across the U.S. ranging from private parties to the world-famous Wurstfest in New Braunfels, Texas. At the same time, Meixner was leading his own jazz combo in performances in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, while also working on a solo accordion CD. Despite the success and the heavy schedule, and in part because of it, he decided to return to formal academic training, and enrolled at Penn State.

"I was having some physical issues, embouchure issues," he says. A trumpeter's embouchure, he explains, "is the make-up of the muscles in your face, how your lips come together, what your jaw does—all that stuff comes together to determine how you set up your chops. I had an unorthodox embouchure, and it was causing me some problems, and I got tired of dealing with them in a hit-or-miss fashion."

At University Park, he worked closely with associate professor of music John Daniel, who teaches "applied studio trumpet," according to materials advertising Penn State's jazz program. "John really put me through the wringer," Meixner says. "I went through a complete embouchure change. For a few months I sounded like a complete beginner. But he got me straightened out." With his new chops, Meixner studied jazz composition and performance with Penn State professors Dan Yoder and Rick Hirsch, soloed with the School's Centre Dimensions jazz ensemble, and played trumpet with the Valley jazz orchestra, an 18-piece big band made up of faculty, students, and local musicians. He also coordinated the Penn State jazz combo program, taught private lessons and a trumpet methods class, and released several recordings as a soloist and accompanist. Through it all, he continued a fairly grueling performing slate with his father's band. ("We cut back this year," he says. "But last year we toured almost 35,000 miles.")

Before he came to Penn State, Meixner's musical worlds had remained essentially separate. "Polka has received a stigma," he acknowledges, "and I won't say it's completely unwarranted." Part of the problem, he says, is that some of polka's practitioners, in an attempt to achieve mainstream popularity, have tried to de-ethnicize the music. "But it's the ethnic element that makes it worth preserving."

He and his father share a folklorist's respect for polka. Alex can discourse at length on the differences between Polish and Slovenian and Austrian styles: variations in tempo, instrumentation, and articulation that to the casual listener may appear vanishingly subtle but to partisans are grounds for schism. "What one person will call authentic another will dismiss as contemporary," he says.

They also recognize that a living music tradition can't remain frozen in time. "If we don't accept the EVOLUTION of polka, expect the EXTINCTION of polka," Al Meixner writes on his band's Web site. For Alex, coming to Penn State was "a great opportunity to cross some of those boundaries.

CD cover for Alex: The Legacy

"I had met a percussionist from Bulgaria, and we formed a group that fused Slavic folk music with American jazz. We called ourselves 'The Furious Four.' We'd start with Slavic music, but instead of playing everything in 4/4 we'd use odd meters: fives, sevens, nines, elevens. . . . "

Or they'd take an American jazz classic, and give it a folk-European twist. He pulls a CD from a stack on the piano, pops it into a player. The melody is immediately familiar: It's Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." But the meter plays out with a weird new insistence. "We transposed it to 4/4, with the bridge in a 5/8 Bulgarian pajdusko rhythm," Meixner explains. "I call it 'Take Five mit funken.'"

Another selection is a Bulgarian folk song spiked with jazz improvisation, "and a little Latin montuno superimposed," he says. "In Bulgaria people would be doing circle dances to this stuff." In another ensemble he organized at Penn State, Meixner combined with a Hungarian-American violin player and a Croatian-American tamburitza player to explore some "gypsy jazz." (The tamburitza is a Balkan stringed instrument similar to a mandolin.)

If Meixner has a role model for such hybridization, it may be Brave Combo, the genre-scrambling Texas-based band that won a Grammy in 1999 for a record called Polkasonic. Meixner is friends with the Combo's members and has played with them. "One of my biggest thrills," he says, "was when they did one of my tunes, an arrangement from the Slovenian polka canon that I recorded back in 1992."

On most of his recordings, Meixner plays both accordion and trumpet. "Which I like better depends on the day, and the gig," he says. "Each has its limitations. The button box is not a chromatic instrument. It has four rows of buttons, and each plays a different note. So you're limited as to what you can do. With the trumpet, I'm limited by what I'm able to do."

That latter limit is the one he aims to push against right now. This morning Meixner completed an audition tape for the Jazz Ambassadors of Kennedy Center, a cultural-exchange program that could land him a season in Africa or the Middle East. Next week he has a couple of try-outs for straight jazz gigs in New York.

"This is kind of a crossroads for me," he says. "I'm winding down with some of the ethnic work, taking it in a new direction.

"The great thing about music is that everything you've done you carry with you. It all contributes to who you are."

Alex Meixner received his master's degree in music performance in August 2001. In February, he was awarded first prize in the performance option of the 16th annual Graduate Exhibition for his performance of an original trumpet composition titled "Slavic Moods." He can be reached via email at alex@almeixner.com or on the Web at http://almeixner.com. Meixner's adviser was John Daniel, M.A., associate professor of music in the School of Music, 233 Music Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4414; jed14@psu.edujed14@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2002