Two Ways to Tango

Let’s see if this sounds familiar: We’re at the turn of the last century, and an irrepressible new music has coalesced in a teeming port city. Its sound is ebullient, even impertinent, but also rich and refined: an unlikely brew of flavors extracted from Europe, from Africa (via the Caribbean), and, of course, from an already creolized local culture. For a while this engaging hybrid is largely consigned to the milieu of brothels. But with the help of some charismatic mavericks it evolves into popular music, and then concert music. More than a hundred years after its inception, it endures as an adaptable language, as a symbol of national identity, and as a living if occasionally embattled tradition.

I’m describing tango, though the premise works just as well for jazz. The two genres emerged out of similar circumstances, despite the fact that New Orleans and Buenos Aires are thousands of miles apart. And the connection between them feels especially relevant now, given a proliferation of jazz-meets-tango projects in both hemispheres.

Of course, when we invoke “jazz” and “tango” in this context, we mean a particular subspecies of each: essentially postbop and nuevo tango, the latter of which is synonymous with one person, the brilliant composer and bandoneón player Astor Piazzolla. In the music of Piazzolla, and especially an ingenious theme like “Libertango”—with its Escher-like melodic structure, dramatic chord progression and inexorably driving rhythm—the spirit of tango feels incandescent and alive. Even a leading proponent of nuevo tango today, pianist Pablo Ziegler, comes by his authority partly as a longtime compatriot of Piazzolla. (But consult Ziegler’s thrilling Buenos Aires Report, released this year on Zoho Music, for fresh proof that his stature is deserved.)

Most jazz listeners have heard a touch of Astor, whether through tributes like vibraphonist Gary Burton’s Concord album Libertango, which astutely features Ziegler, or one of the many recordings the master made himself before his death in 1992. But there is a world beyond Piazzolla, just as there is a wealth of jazz beyond Charlie Parker.

Recently I began exploring the older traditions of tango, savoring the world-unto-itself sound of the orquesta típica, or standard chamber group. That sound speaks vividly of another era, and yet has managed to preserve its dignity in our time. Consider Café de los Maestros (Universal), a two-disc compilation of contemporary performances by distinguished elders of the music. As masterminded by the esteemed composer-producer Gustavo Santaolalla, the album, available as an import, presents an Argentine response to Buena Vista Social Club. The point of the project was to capture the rare splendor of artists like bandoneónist-bandleader Leopoldo Federico and pianist-composer Horacio Salgán.

I had the good fortune to hear the Leopoldo Federico Orquesta one September evening at the Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso, one of the most hallowed tango clubs in Buenos Aires. It was a revelation, in part because of the extraordinary fullness of the ensemble’s sound in the room. The instrumentation was also striking: piano, bass, cello, five violins and four bandoneóns, in a formation visually evocative of a big band. (The violins formed a standing back row, like a trumpet section; the bandoneóns were seated up front like saxophonists, with Federico in the first tenor chair.) Rewardingly, the music spanned both traditional and nuevo styles, with bursts of improvisation from Federico and his bandmates, including the fine violinist Fernando Suarez Paz. At other moments a vocalist took the spotlight, with passionate old-world projection. The magic was partly in a catholic mix of styles. As a Piazzolla contemporary, Federico remembers what tango was like before modernism; as a modernist himself, he doesn’t need to take sides.

While in Buenos Aires, I also stopped by Thelonious, the consensus spot to catch local jazz musicians, not unlike Smalls in Greenwich Village. (Both, incidentally, have served as home base for pianist and composer Guillermo Klein.) The club, shotgun-narrow but comfortably chic, often employs tango-jazz groups, but on the night I visited its headliner was a guitarist playing crisp hard bop in the Grant Green style. For a moment I could have been back in New York, or in Tokyo, or virtually any city with a jazz scene. It was a reminder of jazz’s globalization: I had gone to the Smalls of Buenos Aires only to hear music I would normally associate with the actual Smalls, back home.

The irony is that Smalls itself has become something of a haven for Argentine jazz-tango hybridists like pianist Emilio Solla and bassist Pablo Aslan. One recent Sunday I sat down with both artists at Fat Cat, a companion club. Having just finished a set with the NY Tango Jazz Project, which Solla leads, they spoke good-naturedly about their philosophical differences. “The challenge for me is to find players who understand both traditions,” said Aslan, whose latest album is Buenos Aires Tango Standards (Zoho). “I would love to have access to musicians who have done their homework.”

“I have a different approach,” countered Solla, who recently recorded his fourth album for the Fresh Sound label in Barcelona. “Pablo’s band, which I play in, is much more tango oriented than mine. My projects are more open rhythmically. I want the drummer to do his thing.” He mentioned the Afro-Cuban habanera, an early influence on tango; it had been a strong current in his set, which also touched on hard-driving modal jazz.

Solla and Aslan are each seeking what the latter calls “looseness within the style,” and they aren’t alone. Guillermo Klein has been advancing his radically polyglot vision of midsize-ensemble music. The bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi has been turning out gems on ECM. Paquito D’Rivera, the Cuban alto saxophonist and clarinetist, recently released Funk Tango (Paquito/Sunnyside), which included compositions by trumpeter Diego Urcola and pianist Fernando Otero, a smart pair of New York-based Argentines; Urcola’s Viva (CAM Jazz) was a 2007 Grammy nominee, and Otero’s stunning Pagina de Buenos Aires is due in January on Nonesuch. And there’s more where all this came from: As is happily the case with jazz, tango hasn’t lost the will to surprise.

Originally published in December 2007

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