Astor Piazzolla (center) and his exceptional Quintet, with which he recorded two of the albums of his great “American” trilogy. From left to right, Horacio Malvicino, electric guitar; Hector Console, double bass; Fernando Suárez Paz, violin; and Pablo Ziegler, piano.
When an old friend at the Recording Academy surprised me yesterday morning with a message congratulating me on the GRAMMY nomination in the Album Notes category, my natural response was to thank her — and immediately think she was likely mistaken. We all have high hopes for our friends. But I didn’t want to say anything until I saw the list — and I did, and there it was.
It’s a nomination for the notes for Nonesuch’s Astor Piazzolla The American Clavé Recordings, a trilogy that includes Tango Zero Hour (1986), The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango Apasionado) (1987), and La Camorra (1988)
It’s a privilege to have your work considered by your peers, in my case, writers I’ve read and learned from for many years. But it is also special for me that these notes are about Astor Piazzolla (my musical hero growing up in Buenos Aires) and his work with Kip Hanrahan, one of the most creative and generous people I know, and a dear friend.
The 2023 GRAMMYs take place Sunday, Feb. 5.
- Best Album Notes
- The American Clavé Recordings
Fernando González, album notes writer (Astor Piazzolla)
- Andy Irvine & Paul Brady
Gareth Murphy, album notes writer (Andy Irvine & Paul Brady)
- Harry Partch, 1942
John Schneider, album notes writer (Harry Partch)
- Life’s Work: A Retrospective
Ted Olson, album notes writer (Doc Watson)
- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)
Bob Mehr, album notes writer (Wilco)
These are my nominated album notes.
Astor Piazzolla’s American Clavé Trilogy
In May 1986, Argentine composer, musician, and bandleader Astor Piazzolla, the creator of New Tango, entered the studio in Manhattan with his Quintet to record Zero Hour. It would turn out to be the first of three consequential recordings that would finally establish him in the United States and strengthen his standing around the world. He was 65, and his life and musical career had followed a serpentine path.
Raised in New York, he lived most of the time in Buenos Aires and found a home in Rome, Paris, and, again, New York. As a musician, he had been a traditional tango player, a classical music student, a classical composer, wrote film soundtracks, and became a one-person tango avant-garde, often playing two or more of these roles at the same time. He brought to tango fugues, soaring operatic melodies, Bartok-style rhythms, jazz harmonies, swing, a walking bass, and even a dash of improvisation. His music was at once bruising and sophisticated; it had an unabashed lyricism as it remained unsentimental.
In Argentina, he was both admired and despised. By the mid-50s into the 60s, as Piazzolla was finding his voice, traditional tango was withering, living off worn-out formulas even as the tremors of the coming musical earthquake represented by rock and roll were beginning to be felt. Still, traditionalists accused Piazzolla of “killing tango.” But he found an audience and a modicum of fame in Europe.
The United States remained elusive.
For Piazzolla, this was not just a professional but also a personal challenge.
* * *
Born in Mar del Plata, a seaside city about 248 miles south of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, Piazzolla grew up, from the age of 4, in the Lower East Side in Manhattan and later, after a brief attempt to return to Argentina in 1930, in Little Italy. In the 1920s and 30s, these were tough neighborhoods that Piazzolla remembered as populated by gangs of seemingly every stripe – including Italian, Jewish, Irish, Polish, and Romanians. “I grew up in that violent climate. That’s why I became a fighter,” he recalled in his Memoirs.
He might not have had a choice. As a small kid with a limp, wearing special shoes — he underwent several operations as a child to correct a congenital disability on his right foot — he might have seemed an easy prey, so he learned the rules of the street and hit first and hit hard. “I took some terrible beatings, but I gave some good beatings too,” he once told me.
His father, Vicente, nicknamed “Nonino,” was a barber. He would listen to tango recordings after work every night, primarily by singer Carlos Gardel and the Julio DeCaro Orchestra, and would tell him stories about the music. Piazzolla wasn’t interested in tango. He loved the harmonica and tap dancing and would go up to Harlem with a friend to hear musicians such as Cab Calloway from outside the club.
But Nonino got him a bandoneon. Piazzolla was eight and after ignoring it for a while, and to please his father, he began to learn how to get some sounds out of it. There were no choices of bandoneon teachers in New York those days, so Piazzolla made do by trying the buttons and studying with a pianist who had played in a tango orchestra and then found the notes in the instrument. He also took some lessons in solfege, but it was “a failure.”
Something clicked when he heard one of his neighbors, Bela Wilda, a classical pianist, who, according to Piazzolla, was a student of Rachmaninoff. “Every morning, he would spend four or five hours playing Bach. I didn’t go out to hang with the guys. I would stay home to hear this guy play the piano,” he once told me. “It was as if someone had opened a big window to something I had never seen before.” He was hooked.
He began studying with Wilda, adapting Bach, Schumann and Mozart to the bandoneon. By 1932, he was presented in the show “An Evening in Argentina” at Roerich Hall as “the boy wonder of the bandoneon.” He also met and accompanied Gardel, who was in New York to perform and shoot four movies for Paramount, at a few performances. Piazzolla even appeared for a few seconds as a newspaper boy in a scene of Gardel’s El Dia Que Me Quieras.
By the time his family returned to Argentina, he was 16, and his New York education included some formal schooling but mainly gang life, card games for money, street brawling, his father’s tango, jazz, the music of his Italian and Jewish neighbors — and Bach.
It proved a blessing and a curse.
Piazzolla was to be the perpetual outsider, first by fate, later by choice.
Piazzolla (top right) as a member of Anibal Troilo’s orchestra. (Troilo center, bottom row)
If everyday life had its trials for the new arrival — by his own account, he didn’t speak Spanish that well early on — entering a tango world he only knew from a distance proved an often bewildering experience. When Piazzolla finally settled in Buenos Aires, he found work playing and arranging for Anibal Troilo, a master bandoneonist and composer. He led one of the top orquestas típicas, tango orchestras, of the day. But for tangueros, Piazzolla remained a talented oddball. He would include a cello solo in one of his tango arrangements and stump the dancers, or warm up by playing a few bars of “Rhapsody in Blue” on the bandoneon causing his bandmates to look at him “like I was a bug.” Musically, not even Troilo was enough. He started studying with classical composer Alberto Ginastera (Piazzolla was his first student), organized his tango orchestra, found work writing for film, and, frustrated by the limitations of the genre and the routines of its nightlife, gave up on tango.
A providential scholarship to study in Paris, France, in 1954 with the fabled Nadia Boulanger, teacher of Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and Elliot Carter, reset his compass. She was tepid about his classical writing, but when she asked him what else he did, and he sheepishly said “tango,” she was interested. As the story goes, he started playing “Triunfal,” and after a few bars, she stopped him. “Now, this is Piazzolla,” Mlle. Boulanger told him. “Don’t ever leave him.” Her blessing sparked a new beginning for Piazzolla. He returned to Argentina, and in 1955 he organized an extraordinary octet that marked a before and after in tango.
Still, the response was discouraging. Disillusioned by the lack of work, in 1958, Piazzolla decided, just as his father before him, to take his family and try his luck in New York. It was a disastrous experience marked by little work, a couple of unsatisfying recordings, and the devastating news of the death of his father, which inspired one of his most moving pieces, “Adios Nonino.”
He returned to Buenos Aires in June 1960, and economics and aesthetics led him to form a quintet. Comprising bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano, and double bass, the ensemble suggested a chamber music group with a jazz spirit. In that first Quintet, which remained loosely together from 1960 to 1970, Piazzolla found his true instrument. Writing for specific musicians, not just a particular instrumentation, Piazzolla broke new ground, created some of the most significant works in his repertoire, and defined the sound of New Tango.
* * *
In 1986, Piazzolla was in New York with what came to be known, echoes of Miles Davis, as his Second Great Quintet. The New Tango Quintet comprised Fernando Suárez Paz, violin; Pablo Ziegler, piano; Horacio Malvicino, electric guitar; and Hector Console, double bass. It had been convened by Piazzolla in 1978, after a long break that included living for a while in Europe, musical side trips, and experimenting with other ensembles. This Quintet also remained remarkably stable, so after years of tours, live recordings, and sessions for soundtracks, it arrived in New York performing at a peak. Curiously, after recording Biyuya in 1979, the Quintet had not been in a studio to work on a Piazzolla album.
Now Piazzolla wanted both a summation and a breakthrough.
Considering his goals, his choices of producer and record label seemed curious — call it outside the box if you must — but proved brilliant.
Kip Hanrahan was an Irish-Jewish composer, bandleader, and producer from the Bronx whose bold, daring Avant-roots-pop-jazz music reflected and built on the sounds he had heard growing up. Trained in filmmaking, he often compared making records to making a movie and spoke of approaching music composition with some of the techniques and strategies used in film. As for live performances, while nominally a percussionist, Hanrahan worked as a facilitator and traffic cop for his unruly, all-star caliber bands, discreetly conducting them from a side of the stage, walking in now and then to launch a piece, direct a passage, or arrange and re-compose his music on the fly.
His label, American Clavé, was a platform for his music and the work of creators as intriguing but disparate as trumpeter and conguero Jerry González, poets Ishmael Reed and Paul Haines, and saxophonist and producer Teo Macero. The sound and presentation of each recording were impeccable — but American Clavé’s marketing budget was minuscule compared to any major music company.
Guitarist Malvicino, a long-time music partner and dear friend of Piazzolla, notes that “Astor was disenchanted with the big labels. He felt they had not treated him with respect. Kip loved Piazzolla. He had a tremendous admiration, a passion, for everything Piazzolla, and knew his work from the days of his orquesta típica,” he says. “Kip might not be easy sometimes, but he is great fun, has a great sense of humor, and he and Astor got along wonderfully.”
They met in 1985, backstage at a festival in Marseille, France, where Hanrahan was performing with his band. Piazzolla arrived after the set ended and didn’t get to hear Hanrahan’s music live. ” Astor had never heard a record of mine or what the band did until we finished Zero Hour — and I’m thankful for that,” deadpans Hanrahan. He speculates that Piazzolla probably heard about him from Malvicino, whose son was the sound engineer for Hanrahan’s band. And Piazzolla also might have been intrigued by the high praise Hanrahan was receiving as a producer. In a review of one of his albums, Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, called him “the Jean-Luc Godard of music today,” and his work “without equal in contemporary production.”
Whatever the reason, that same night, shortly after meeting, Piazzolla approached Hanrahan and informed him, “you’re my producer.” Hanrahan was “slightly puzzled but thrilled.”
What connected them transcended aesthetic differences.
In Hanrahan, Piazzolla had found a fellow outsider.
* * *
“The year before we did Zero Hour, we were sending letters back and forth about it,” recalls Hanrahan. “This was not just another record; it was a major thing for him. [He considered Zero Hour] his first American record, and he thought that it should be a really big thing.”
The plan was simple enough: working with this extraordinary Quintet, playing at the top of its game, re-record a selection of works by Piazzolla and create “the best possible representation of his music.” But this was not about just getting “clean” versions, cautions Hanrahan. “I would never use the word ‘clean,” he says. “Astor wanted it perfect. He wanted that mugre, that grime he talked about when playing his music. He wanted it to be the most passionate recording of it — but perfect. Every note, every phrase, every dynamic had to be just right.”
For the recording, Piazzolla chose, for the most part, pieces from the repertoire he and the Quintet had been playing in concert. All but one had been previously recorded. The exception was “Contrabajísimo,” a piece dedicated to Console, the Quintet’s invaluable bass player. In Piazzolla’s quintets, the double bass was foundational, charged with not only providing a harmonic bedrock but, without the help of a percussion instrument, the rhythmic thrust. The piece is a Zero Hour highlight.
The rest of the program includes “Tanguedia III,” “Tanguedia II,” which appears here as “Milonga Loca,” and “Mumuki,” all first recorded in 1984 for the soundtrack of the film The Exile of Gardel. “Tanguedia III,” which opens the record, features the Quintet reciting, mantra-like, the words tango, tragedia, comedia, kilombo (tango, tragedy, comedy, and a Buenos Aires slang term that might be interpreted as chaos or whorehouse). The list suggests a sly, tongue-in-cheek recipe for Nuevo Tango, and Piazzolla himself participates speaking in Italian and lunfardo (Buenos Aires’s slang), oddly complaining about a stolen bicycle.
“Michelangelo ’70,” a piece that first appeared in Piazzolla’s classic 1969 album Adios Nonino, and named after a long-gone music club in Buenos Aires, bursts forth with controlled urgency. The marvelous “Concierto para Quinteto,” first recorded in 1971, is another highlight, featuring here soulful but precise performances by Suárez Paz and Piazzolla and even a bit of stretching out by Ziegler and Malvicino, both underrated jazz players who, for Piazzolla’s music, had to devise a Piazzolla-style improvisation. “Ah yes, I had to take a test in rehearsals showing him that I was not playing jazz and I was getting a handle on improvising with the “Buenos Aires feel” that Ziegler had mastered,” Malvicino said. “After Zero Hour, I got carte blanche and improvised much more.”
Throughout Zero Hour, the performance of the Quintet is consistently brilliant. They not only play every note “just right” but seem to breathe as one in the ensemble passages while also changing direction, moods, and dynamics on a dime.
Piazzolla immediately recognized what he had.
“This is absolutely the greatest record I’ve made in my entire life,” he said at the time. “We gave our souls to it. This is the record I can give to my grandchildren and say, “This is what we did with our lives.'”
And yet, Piazzolla and Hanrahan came thisclose to blowing up their partnership. Arguments over post-production issues between artist and producer reached an intolerable, screaming point, and Hanrahan decided, “I can’t do this.” He called producer Teo Macero, a mentor and a friend. Perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis on albums now considered classics, Macero had an astonishing career that includes working with artists such as Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Count Basie. “I told Astor, ‘You and I are never going to get along,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, call Teo.'” So Teo came to the studio. He had heard some rough mixes of Zero Hour and took Astor to dinner. About two hours later, they came back in, I was still working, and Astor comes over and growls, ‘You have a friend for life over there!’ And I was like, ‘Uh? What happened?’.”
Macero had told Piazzolla that he and Miles “hated each other most of the time […], but that they were producing something great. That partnership was more important than whether they liked each other or not. And Teo told him, ‘I heard what you’re doing, and it’s unbelievable. Keep it going. Don’t let this go.’ So Teo, the bastard, shackled me with Astor for the rest of it,” says Hanrahan with mock frustration.
* * *
The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango Apasionado), recorded the following year by Piazzolla without the Quintet, occupies a unique place in his discography.
It is based on the music Piazzolla composed for Tango Apasionado, a dance and theater piece created by Broadway choreographer and director Graciela Daniele in 1987, based on stories by Argentine short-story writer, poet, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges. Tango Apasionado had only a brief stage life as rights issues raised by Borges’ estate quickly put an end to the performances. It was only fitting. Piazzolla and Borges had a decades-long history of failed encounters.
Their first true collaboration, El Tango (1965), is considered by some a masterwork. Still, the partnership ended in bitter mutual criticism. Borges didn’t think the music was tango, a familiar-sounding judgment those days in some circles. In his Memoirs, Piazzolla punches back, calling Borges “[…]a magician of the written word.[…] But regarding music, he was deaf.” Borges also didn’t think much of Piazzolla’s soundtrack for La Intrusa (1982), a film based on one of his short stories.
But what truly sets The Rough Dancer apart in Piazzolla’s discography is how it was created.
Up to this point, the studio for Piazzolla had been, for the most part, a means to document the music he was producing. But after his encounter with Macero, and subsequent conversations with Hanrahan about Macero’s work with Miles Davis, creating entire pieces in the editing room by cutting, pasting, remixing and generally manipulating the recorded material, Piazzolla was intrigued by the idea of using the studio as a creative tool, perhaps even for composing and arranging.
“Teo used to joke that for In A Silent Way, Miles only had 12 minutes of music; with Astor, here, it may have been 19 minutes,” deadpans Hanrahan. “It was not his most complex music, but there were some beautiful little pieces. So Astor asks me, ‘Do you think we can make a record out of this? You told me all about Teo Macero. You’re friends with Teo Macero. Why don’t you do a Teo Macero, and we do a record that way?’ That was his ‘Teo dare’ — and for me, it was like I had won the lottery.”
Piazzolla insisted on picking the musicians for the session (in part, afraid of Hanrahan calling on his musicians and make it “a Kip record,” suspects the producer) with mixed results. After a reshuffling, the players who made the cut included Cuban reedman Paquito D’Rivera, Latin music bassist Andy González, the quintet’s violinist, Suárez Paz, Uruguayan pianist Pablo Zinger, and Argentine jazz guitarist and arranger Rodolfo Alchourrón.
Unlike Zero Hour, per Piazzolla’s instructions, Rough Dancer “had to have rough edges, don’t clean it up, it has to be loose. Imagine a Borges’ whorehouse.”
The final result is thematically coherent — which is to be expected as some themes, and sometimes entire pieces, reappear throughout under different guises — and has a compelling dramatic arc. Throughout, some pieces are recut and reconfigured, an instrument is added or taken away. The beautiful bandoneon solo “Prelude to the Cyclical Night” appears twice, and it also reappears in “Leonora Love Theme.” The dramatic “Milonga for Three,” the centerpiece of the recording, appears twice, one with Piazzolla playing the lead, the other featuring D’Rivera over a different mix. “That’s Teo style,” says Hanrahan. “And Astor liked that.'”
* * * *
La Camorra, which closes Astor Piazzolla’s American Trilogy, not only delivers a late masterpiece, the three-part title piece, but it also serves as a marker for completing two significant chapters in Piazzolla’s life and musical career.
Piazzolla and Hanrahan had made no plans about their recordings. It was a handshake agreement in which “Astor assumed that we’d keep making records as long as he could tolerate me, I guess,” says Hanrahan. “So he called the winter of ’88 and said,’ I’m working on this piece now. It’s a summation of my entire career in tango. We need to record it.’ And that was that.”
The common use of the term “camorra” in Spanish is “brawl.” More to the point, in lunfardo, Buenos Aires’ slang, buscar camorra means “spoiling for a fight.” It’s what Piazzolla and Hanrahan seem to be slyly alluding to in the title: La Camorra: La Soledad de la Provocación Apasionada (La Camorra: The Loneliness of Passionate Provocation)
Set up as three separate but related pieces, La Camorra it’s more than a summation. It suggests Piazzolla reflecting on tango, now lovingly, conjuring old players and styles, now angrily fighting with tango history, demanding his place in it. It is constructed over a simple theme that evokes the crowd chant at the Woodstock festival. The chant was then popular with rock fans and at soccer stadiums in Argentina (“I wondered what Boca Juniors had to do with it,” notes a puzzled Hanrahan, a knowledgeable soccer fan).
“Camorra I” immediately evokes the bearing of the 1940s tango orchestras, quite an orchestration achievement considering it’s a quintet. The music is brawny and with a heavy swing canyengue (roughly, streetwise) and eminently danceable. Then Piazzolla also seems to glance back to his first Quintet as he leaves ample room for Ziegler and Malvicino to improvise. “Camorra II” is relentless in its furious forward thrusts and nearly operatic in the meditative sections. It’s a tour de force by violinist Suárez Paz. “La Camorra III” explodes right into the theme (perhaps the closest it comes to being explicitly cited) before taking, again, a reflective pause and urgently rushing forward. There is an extended solo piano interlude by Ziegler, eloquent but under control, leading back to the theme and a closing piano improvisation.
In Zero Hour style, Piazzolla completes the program with versions of pieces he had already recorded, polished to a gleam. The Quintet is again in excellent form. The playful fugue-like “Fugata” and the muted, heartbreaking “Soledad” (Loneliness) had first appeared on Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s landmark 1969 album. “Los Sueños,” first recorded as a solo bandoneón piece, and “Regreso al Amor” were both from the soundtrack for the film Sur and had been recorded by this Quintet.
Featuring a substantial new work and impeccable performances of four repertoire pieces, La Camorra is a high watermark in Piazzolla’s discography — and he knew it
In his Memoirs, he called La Camorra the best recording of his career.
It was also Piazzolla’s last recording with the New Tango Quintet.
Facing quadruple bypass heart surgery, he dissolved the group as he reconsidered his future.
Piazzolla went on to form a sextet, perform as a soloist with symphony orchestras, and on August 5, 1990, at his home in Paris, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Taken back to Buenos Aires, he lingered for nearly two years, dying on July 4, 1992. He was 71.
Just as Zero Hour represented a search for perfect versions of his music, and The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night was a final round with Borges, leaving nothing to be settled; La Camorra was a profound reflection by Piazzolla on the history of tango and, improbably, led him back to the beginning of his part in it.
La Camorra was recorded at Master Sound Astoria, in Astoria, New York. It is part of the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex where Carlos Gardel shot El Dia Que Me Quieras, the film in which the 14-year-old Astor Piazzolla appeared for a few seconds next to tango’s greatest singer.
Piazzolla (left) and Gardel (next to the policeman) in El Dia Que Me Quieras.
It’s certainly not what the scene is about, but Piazzolla seems to be already pointing to the future.
Borges wrote about forking paths; Piazzolla had circular ones.
His scene in Gardel’s film was likely shot at that location.
But according to Hanrahan, Piazzolla didn’t make any comments.
“I’m guessing that Astor didn’t realize that this was the same place.”
Or perhaps he did, but there was nothing more to say.