One hundred years of Astor Piazzolla

Argentine composer, musician, and bandleader Astor Piazzolla, the creator of New Tango, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this March 11. He died in 1992 at the age of 71. But by then, his music — which rewrote of the rules of tango by drawing from sources as disparate as jazz, European classical music and klezmer — had made him an international figure.

Once reviled by many at home, Piazzolla attracted audiences for New Tango around the world and gained admirers and champions such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Evans, Al DiMeola, Gary Burton, and Grace Jones.

Also, as a student of classical music by day and a tango musician by night, the young Piazzolla had once dreamed of becoming a classical composer in the European tradition. But instead of merely emulating his predecessors, he forged a new musical genre that built on the foundation of the past. Years later, Piazzolla got to lead his ensembles in the temples of classical music, and his New Tango was played by symphonic orchestras, chambers groups, and string quartets. Being Piazzolla was enough.

Sometimes an outsider is needed to upend traditions and challenge entrenched habits — and Piazzolla, who was not born in Buenos Aires, the tango capital, but Mar del Plata, a seaside city about 248 miles south of Buenos Aires, and then grew up in the rough Lower East Side of Manhattan until the age of 17, was the perennial outsider — by fate and by choice.

He got his first bandoneon, the melancholy-sounding button squeezebox when he was nine, as a gift from his father, a tango fan. There was not a choice of bandoneon teachers in New York in the 1920s, so he made do by trying the buttons and, eventually, adapting the music by Bach and Schuman he learned from his neighborhood teachers, all pianists.

When the family returned to Argentina, he didn’t speak Spanish that well. “My mom would speak to me in Spanish, and I would answer in English,” he once told me.

Yet when Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires, he soon found work playing and arranging for Anibal Troilo, a master bandoneonist and composer who led one of the top tango orchestras of the day. But still, in the tango world, Piazzolla was a talented oddball. And even Troilo was not enough for him musically. He started studying with classical composer Alberto Ginastera, organized his own orchestra and wrote music for film.

In 1954, when he was 33, Piazolla won a scholarship to study in Paris, France, with the fabled Nadia Boulanger, teacher of Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud and Elliot Carter, among many others. She was lukewarm about his classical writing, but, years later, Piazzolla was still fond of recalling the scene when she asked him to play something else, whatever he did back home. A bit mortified, he started out with “Triunfal,” one of his tangos, and after a few bars she stopped him. “Now, this is Piazzolla,” she told him. “Don’t ever leave him.”

Astor Piazzolla and his great second quintet featuring Fernando Suarez Paz, violin; Pablo Ziegler, piano; Horacio Malvicino, guitar, and Hector Console, bass, performing in Japan in 1980

The blessing refocused and energized him. He returned to Argentina, and in 1955 he organized an extraordinary octet (which he claimed was inspired by hearing Gerry Mulligan’s Tentet) that marked a before and after in tango.

By looking past the dance floor and the postcard clichés of the music, Piazzolla, the man many accused of killing tango, saved it from itself.

For his New Tango, Piazzolla held on to tango’s poignancy while sidestepping its tendency toward nostalgia and self-pity. His writing was elegant and cosmopolitan but also visceral. It brought a fresh harmonic and rhythmic language to tango, with nods to jazz, Bartok and Stravinsky, soaring melodies and themes set as three-part fugues. The sum result was aggressive and lyrical, and always moving in its coarse tenderness. And while he was a master of the bandoneon, his best instrument was the quintet — a jazz-type of a group, not a traditional tango ensemble — that included piano, double bass, violin and electric guitar.

He approached his quintets as miniature orchestras, but he would also tell his musicians that the music had to have mugre, grime.

His New Tango came alive in the perfection of imperfection. Its humanity made him immortal.

Fernando González translated and annotated Astor Piazzolla “Memoirs” (as told to Natalio Gorin) Amadeus Press, 2001; and wrote liner notes for four of Piazzolla’s albums in the 1980s.

A version of this essay appeared in JAZZIZ Magazine.

Watch the virtual tribute 100 Years of Astor Piazzolla. The Soul of New Tango Facebook @KoubekCenterMDC March 12, at 8 p.m.

Astor Piazzolla … y en el 3000 también

Astor Piazzolla por Charles Reilly

“Tengo un ilusión: Que mi obra se escuche en 2020. Y en el 3000 también”. Astor Piazzolla

El bandoneonista y compositor argentino Astor Piazzolla, creador del Nuevo Tango, habría cumplido 100 años este 11 de marzo.

Murió en 1992 a los 71 años. Pero para entonces, su música, una insolente reescritura de las reglas del tango a partir de fuentes tan dispares como el jazz, la música clásica europea y el klezmer, ya lo había convertido en una figura internacional.

Piazzolla, quien alguna vez fue hasta violentamente rechazado en su país, atrajo al Nuevo Tango público de todo el mundo y ganó admiradores y defensores tan dispares como Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Evans, Al DiMeola, Gary Burton y Grace Jones.

Quizás la mejor revancha fue para el joven Piazzolla quien, como estudiante de música clásica de día y músico de tango por las noches, había soñado con ser un compositor clásico en la tradición europea. No le fue necesario imitar a nadie. Unas décadas mas tarde, Piazzolla no sólo llegó a dirigir sus conjuntos en los templos de la música clásica sino también a escuchar su Nuevo Tango interpretado por orquestas sinfónicas, grupos de cámara y cuartetos de cuerda.

Ser Piazzolla resultó ser suficiente.

Para renovar tradiciones y desafiar hábitos profundamente arraigados en una cultura, a veces se necesita alguien foráneo, alguien “de afuera”. Piazzolla, que no nació en Buenos Aires, la capital del tango, sino en Mar del Plata, una ciudad costera a unos 400 km al sur de Buenos Aires, y que luego creció hasta los 17 años en el duro Lower East Side de Manhattan en los años ’20, fue el eterno forastero, por destino y por elección.

Recibió su primer bandoneón como regalo de su padre, un amante del tango, y comenzó a estudiarlo sin mucho interés, para complacerlo. En esa época en Nueva York no había mucho de donde elegir en la búsqueda de profesores de bandoneón, así que Piazzolla se las arregló probando los botones de esa caja misteriosa, estudiando con pianistas, y adaptando al bandoneón la música de Bach y Schuman que aprendía de sus maestros de barrio.

Cuando la familia regresó a Argentina, no hablaba muy bien el castellano. “Mi madre me hablaba en español y yo le respondía en inglés”, me dijo una vez.

Después de un tiempo en Mar del Plata, Piazzolla se trasladó a Buenos Aires — y para su primera audición como bandoneonista en una orquesta de tango se le ocurrió tocar algo de Mozart y de Gershwin.  “Dejate de fantasías, pibe”, le dijo “El Tano” Lauro, el director. “Tocate un tango en cuatro, chan chan, chan chan”. Le dieron el puesto, claro.

Pronto consiguió trabajo tocando y arreglando para Aníbal Troilo, gran bandoneonista y compositor que dirigía una de las mejores orquestas de tango de la época. Aún así, en el mundo del tango, Piazzolla era un bicho raro con talento. Ni siquiera Troilo le bastó musicalmente. Comenzó a estudiar con el gran compositor clásico Alberto Ginastera (fue su primer alumno) organizó su propia orquesta, escribió música para el cine y, harto de las miserias del mundo de los cabarets y de las limitaciones musicales del género, abandonó el tango.

En 1954, con 33 años, Piazzolla ganó una beca para estudiar en París, Francia, con la legendaria Nadia Boulanger, maestra de Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud y Elliot Carter, entre otros.

A ella no le impresionó su escritura clásica pero, años más tarde, Piazzolla recordaba con cariño la escena en la que Mlle. Boulanger le pidió que tocara algo más, lo que fuera que tocaba allá en su país. Un poco mortificado, empezó con “Triunfal”, uno de sus tangos, y tras unos compases ella lo paró. “Este es Piazzolla”, le dijo. “No lo dejes nunca”.

La bendición de la gran maestra lo reenfocó y le renovó sus energías. Volvió a Argentina, y en 1955 organizó un extraordinario octeto (inspirado, decía, en el Tentet de Gerry Mulligan) que marcó un antes y un después en el tango.

Al ignorar las demandas de la pista de baile y buscar algo más que repetir los clichés de la música, Piazzolla, el hombre al que muchos acusaron de matar el tango, lo salvó, quizás especialmente, de sí mismo.

En su Nuevo Tango, Piazzolla mantuvo la emoción del tango pero evitó su tendencia a la mórbida nostalgia y la autocompasión. Su escritura era elegante y cosmopolita, pero también visceral. Trajo al tango un nuevo vocabulario armónico y rítmico, con guiños al jazz, y al trabajo de Bártok y Stravinsky, melodías operáticas y temas presentados en forma de fugas a tres voces. La suma resultó en un sonido agresivo pero también lírico, conmovedor en su áspera ternura. Y aunque era un maestro del bandoneón, su mejor instrumento fue quizás el quinteto – una agrupación del mundo del jazz, no del tango – compuesto por bandoneón, piano, contrabajo, violín y guitarra eléctrica.

Piazzolla trataba a sus quintetos como orquestas en miniatura, pero también les decía a sus músicos que la música tenía que tener mugre, sugiriendo suciedad, calle.

Su Nuevo Tango vive en la perfección de la imperfección. Su humanidad le hizo inmortal.

Fernando González tradujo y anotó las “Memorias” de Astor Piazzolla (contadas a Natalio Gorin) Amadeus Press, 2001; y escribió las notas de tapa de cuatro discos de AstorPiazzolla en los años 80.

Una versión en inglés de este ensayo fue publicado en la revista JAZZIZ

Chick Corea, in the words and music of Chucho Valdés

Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés at a rehearsal space, in the days before their joint appearance at Jazz @ Lincoln Center, November 2019. Photo courtesy of Lorena Salcedo Valdés ©

The announcement of the death of keyboardist composer and bandleader Chick Corea on February 9 at 79 brought about shock, sadness, and a flood of deserved praise. But the announcement also delivered one last composition by Corea, as vital and generous as so much of his music.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright,” wrote Corea. “It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.”

“And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life.”

One of those musicians was Cuban pianist, composer, and bandleader Chucho Valdés, 79, a longtime fan of Corea. It was not surprising then that, when offered a choice of a guest for his concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center in November 2019, Valdés chose Corea.

Days after the announcement, Valdés still sounded shaken by the news.

“As a musician, I believe every pianist in the world has learned something from him,” said Valdés. “As a human being, I was amazed by his greatness, his simplicity, and his humanity. Vaya, I have no words to describe him. In my life, I’ve met few people like him.”

He recalled first hearing of Corea back in Havana in the late 60s when the closely-knit community of jazz musicians and fans got most of their news and music listening to Willis Conover’s “Jazz Hour” on The Voice of America.  

“That’s how I had discovered Herbie [Hancock],” he noted. “But it was Carlos Emilio [Morales, his long time friend and guitarist of Irakere) who came and told me ‘I heard on Willis Conover a new record by Stan Getz. Man, he has a pianist that’s out of this world. His name is Chick Corea.’ It was 1967, and that’s when I started listening to Corea, and of course, then came Return to Forever and from then on, I followed his career to this day.”

They eventually met at a jazz festival in Sardinia in the 1980s, “and then we crossed paths at many festivals,” recalled Valdés.

“Sometimes, with people you admire, you can’t believe that they are gone. Chick dead? It can’t be,” he added. “Look, for me, Chick has left such a big void, not only in jazz but in music, that it will be very difficult to fill.”