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Bradley Bambarger
Newark Star-Ledger, February 2005

In the 1990s, there was such an international renaissance for the music of Astor Piazzolla -- the pioneering master of tango nuevo -- that it's perhaps easy to take him for granted now.

Piazzolla (1921-92) single-handedly revitalized the tango. The Argentinean composer and virtuoso of the bandoneón (a small button accordion) injected classical complexity and jazz spontaneity into a form that had grown staid and formulaic in its half-century move from bordello to dance hall. Death threats from those invested in the old ways didn't deter him, and Piazzolla saw his revolution eventually influence not only a new generation of tango artists but top classical and jazz musicians.

One famous Piazzolla admirer/interpreter, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, neatly sums up the man's uncommonly universal appeal among the artistic fraternity: "Jazz musicians say, 'He's one of ours.' Classical and world musicians do the same. Piazzolla is claimed by everyone."

There is no better way to gain new appreciation for Piazzolla's achievement -- and his impassioned, ageless music -- than the DVD-Video "Astor Piazzolla in Portrait." Typical of BBC/Opus Arte productions, this is a high-class, value-added affair, combining a new documentary with an invaluable vintage performance/interview film. It makes for a 3 1/2-hour experience, counting all the extra interview outtakes.

The rich new biographical film "Tango Maestro" surveys a life's worth of rare Piazzolla footage and tours key locations. The dozens of commentators include key colleagues (filmmaker/lyricist Fernando Solanas) and cross-cultural collaborators (jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, the Kronos Quartet's David Harrington). The second film, 1989's "Tango Nuevo," documents Piazzolla's final recorded studio performance, with his sextet playing such prime chamber compositions as the driving, dramatic "Tanguedia" and the laments "Milonga del Angel" and "Adios Nonino."

Covers of Piazzolla tunes became a boutique industry in the late '90s, but no matter how inspired many of them are, they pale next to his roughly sensual performances, which reconcile hips, head and heart like only the best music. Likewise, there is no better spokesman for Piazzolla's art than the man himself. Interspersing the "Tango Nuevo" concert numbers is an engrossing interview, in which he speaks with vital, charming directness -- and in a tangy accent that echoes Manhattan as much as Buenos Aires, since Piazzolla spent much of his childhood on the Lower East Side.

The ancestry of the Argentinean tango "is purely Mediterranean, from Italy and Spain," Piazzolla points out, adding that the tango differs in this European heritage from various Brazilian forms of music and their substantial African inheritance. "Brazilian music is extroverted, ours is introverted. The tango is always sad; it is never happy music."

While full of love for Piazzolla's music, "Tango Maestro" is not all homage. The documentary includes frank recollections from his band members, children, paramours. In the interview extras, pianist Pablo Ziegler demonstrates his mentor's harmonic/rhythmic innovations, but he also notes in Piazzolla's character the juxtaposition of fun-loving warmth with the aggressive spirit of a "fighter." Overall, the picture is sketched of a genius artist but a difficult, even intemperate man.

To watch this DVD is to be bound for more Piazzolla. The next step should be the reissue of the classic "Zero Hour" album (Nonesuch) or the mix of live and studio recordings compiled on the new "Rough Guide to Astor Piazzolla" CD (World Music Network). You can also experience Piazzolla's music in the flesh on March 5, when New Brunswick's State Theatre hosts the ensemble Sexteto Mayor and dance company Tango Pasión for an event based on his opera "María de Buenos Aires."

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group