About this Recording
8.573789 - PIAZZOLLA, A.: Violin and Piano Arrangements (Legacy) (Cotik, Tao Lin)

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)


Nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla (born 11 March 1921, died 4 July 1992) packed a lot of living into his writing and his playing.

Tango is the music of Buenos Aires, but the man who would challenge so many of the traditions and clichés within tango, and in doing so create the revolutionary Nuevo tango, was not even a porteño, as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are called. Astor Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, a resort town on the Atlantic coast of Argentina, about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. When he was just four years old, his family moved to New York’s Lower East Side, then a tough neighbourhood populated by gangsters seemingly from every denomination. Astor was short and walked with a limp due to a congenital condition, so he fought his way to respect. The other kids called him ‘Lefty’, acknowledging his punch.

He grew up listening to Italian songs, klezmer music, jazz and, late at night, the tangos his father played at home to alleviate his homesickness. Piazzolla hated tango, but when his father bought him a bandoneon, the button squeezebox that is the quintessential instrument of tango, he set out to learn it ‘just to please him’, he once said. There were no bandoneon teachers around, so he learned the instrument by playing transcriptions of Bach, Schumann and Mozart. He was 13 when he met the iconic tango singer Carlos Gardel, in town to shoot a couple of movies for Paramount. After hearing him play, Gardel famously told him ‘Mirá pibe, el fuelle lo tocás bárbaro, pero al tango lo tocás como un gallego’ (‘Look kid, the squeezebox you play great, but the tango you play like a gringo’).

Piazzolla was still very much a gringo when the family returned to Argentina in 1937, three years later. Even his Spanish was not that good. While in Mar del Plata, he took bandoneon lessons and also heard violinist Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio. His modernist approach awakened in him a new interest in tango. In 1939, he left Mar del Plata to try his luck in Buenos Aires. He joined the orchestra of the great bandoneonist and composer Anibal Troilo, and after a four-year apprenticeship, he left to form his own orchestra.

But playing tango for the dancers in a cabaret was never Piazzolla’s goal. He studied with composer Alberto Ginastera, wrote music for film and won a classical music competition that led to studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1954. Whatever musical technique she taught him, the most profound impact was her blessing of his tango. He didn’t have to be a classical musician to write serious music, he could be Piazzolla. So, upon his return to Buenos Aires in 1955, he formed his Octet, which marked a before and after in tango history.

Still, three years later, unhappy with the audience response to his music, Piazzolla was back in New York, where he would stay until 1960. During that time, he not only wrote new music and worked as an arranger for hire, but formed, and recorded with, an ensemble he called the J-T Quintet, or Jazz Tango Quintet, which included electric guitar and vibraphone. It was an extraordinary time in music. In jazz, Miles Davis released Kind of Blue; Ornette Coleman, who played a now legendary two-week residency at the Five Spot club in Manhattan, released The Shape of Jazz to Come; and Charles Mingus contributed his epochal Ah Um. But the death of his father in 1959 (which inspired the moving tribute Adiós Nonino), and his lack of success, nudged Piazzolla back to Buenos Aires.

In light of these events and more, Piazzolla constructed a distinct musical universe that has its roots in tango but, at certain points, might draw from European classical music and jazz, to klezmer and rock. The musician who once pined to be a ‘serious’ composer, found his place in the classical repertoire and the great concert halls with his Nuevo tango.

Piazzolla’s music is all written out but open to broad interpretation, at times suggesting the freedom of improvisation in jazz. He eschewed conventional tango orchestras and groups and, perhaps drawing from his experiences in New York and with jazz, settled on the quintet as his instrument of choice: rich in sonorities, flexible and compact. Once he had selected his musicians, he wrote specifically for their talents and personalities—not unlike what Duke Ellington did with the great soloists in his orchestra.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Piazzolla’s music sounds at once vaguely familiar yet profoundly different. It also sounds deceptively simple to play—instrumental brilliance is a minimal requirement. The late pianist and composer Gerardo Gandini, a member of Piazzolla’s final group, issued a cautionary warning for performers: ‘La música de Piazzolla es Piazzolla tocándola’ (‘Piazzolla’s music is Piazzolla playing it’).

These are the challenges violinist Tomás Cotik and pianist Tao Lin face when approaching this music. On Legacy, their second album of Piazzolla’s works, they address the composer’s history as they put their imprint on his music. It’s an expansive programme, set by personal resonances rather than thematic ideas.

Vardarito and Escualo (‘Shark’) suggest bookends of Piazzolla’s relationship with the violin in his music. The former was dedicated to violinist Elvino Vardaro, so influential in Piazzolla’s rediscovery of tango and, fast forward to the late 1950s, a member of his Octet and his first Quintet. The latter suggests both a tribute and a dare by Piazzolla to Fernando Suárez Paz, his phenomenal last violinist who, as a youngster, had stood in for Vardaro on the occasions when the old master fell ill.

Balada para un loco (‘Ballad for a Madman’), with lyrics by Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer, became a cause célèbre when it was voted second prize at the first Latin American Festival of Song and Dance in 1969. No one remembers the winner, but the Balada became a major hit and is now considered a landmark in the evolution of the tango-song—even if Piazzolla appeared not to think much of it himself. ‘It is audacious to play a song that’s not for us violinists’, says Cotik, tongue in cheek. ‘But then again, I chose the songs I wanted to play, I needed to play.’

Revirado (‘Crazy’), written in 1963, nods at the bright sound and fast pace of the Old Guard tango—while showing a way forward in harmony and counterpoint. Jeanne y Paul is one of two pieces written by Piazzolla for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris—which by then had already been scored by Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Both were eventually used in Francesco Rosi’s 1976 thriller Cadaveri Eccellenti.

Piazzolla demanded from his musicians roña (‘dirt’), a certain griminess in their playing. Music is not about perfection—and certainly not Piazzolla’s music. Instead, his music is about profound, imperfect humanity. It is violent and tender, it pushes and probes but also comforts, and while it can be nakedly emotional, it also seems to mock the melodrama so dear to tango.

Throughout this recording, Tomás Cotik and Tao Lin distil the sound of the various Piazzolla ensembles into mostly duets and trios. They often attack the music on the page as if to demand that it relinquish its secrets, pushing hard at fast tempos, feelings exposed on a knife edge, no chance for sentimentality. It is how a celebration of Piazzolla’s legacy must sound.

‘Lefty’, the small, lame, immigrant kid, who fought his way to respect on the tough streets of the Lower East Side, would have appreciated it.

Fernando González
Fernando González is a GRAMMY®-nominated independent music journalist and critic. He translated and annotated ‘Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir’ as told to Natalio Gorín, and wrote liner notes for four Piazzolla recordings. He is based in Miami.

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