If you’re old enough to remember the 1986 release of Argentine bandoneonist/composer Astor Piazzolla’s noirish Tango: Zero Hour, you’ll recall that its entry onto the world music stage was akin to that of punk rock a decade earlier in the U.K. Already the avatar of nuevo tango (a brand of native folk music made jazzy and cosmopolitan by his hand), the Ellington of Argentina brought fresh rhythmic and harmonic vibes—to say nothing of a modern chamber classicist’s mindset—to ancient music and made it essential.
Piazzolla had been fashioning his own alluringly electric brand of tango, one that departed greatly from the form’s usual hesitation-step rhythm and was filled with improvisation and contemporary chord shifts, since the mid-’50s. By the mid-’80s, however, with support from his Quinteto Tango Nuevo (bass, violin, piano, guitar) and producer/American Clavé label founder Kip Hanrahan, Piazzolla’s frenetic, romantic sound acquired just that much more of an edge.
Maybe it was Hanrahan’s visionary contributions or the nuevo New York studio setting that made the difference. No matter; today—as part of Nonesuch’s fresh triple-disc collection of American Clavé albums—Tango: Zero Hour still practically jumps off its vinyl frame, with brawny violin fingerings and passionate bandoneon staying at full throttle through moody ballads and more vibrant dance tracks alike.
What happens next, on La Camorra: The Solitude of Passionate Provocation and The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango Apasionado)—the American Clavé collection’s other re-releases—is a matter of temperament, theme, and further reaches into jazz instrumentation and chamber-music aesthetics, with varying degrees of heat.
La Camorra (The Quarrel) features at its heart a three-part tone poem touching on several levels of machismo/toxic masculinity in a more melancholic—and mannered—fashion than Tango: Zero Hour abides. As with its predecessor, violinist Fernando Suárez Paz is the Keith Richards to Piazzolla’s Mick Jagger, a swaggering dueling partner. The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night keeps Paz and another longtime ensemble member, free pianist Pablo Ziegler, in place and fencing, while also welcoming Latin jazz masters Paquito D’Rivera (alto sax, clarinet) and Andy González (bass) into the fold. Crafted as a score to a theater piece based on the work of writer Jorge Luis Borges, Piazzolla & Co.’s Rough Dancer is a spacious postbop tango, light on its feet but heavy in its approximation of the mood of both Borges’ and Piazzolla’s ruminations.
Whether taken separately as in the past or united as in the current package, these three Piazzolla works portray a revolution in sound and sensuality in its final, frantic stages.