Nuevo o viejo, tango will captivate
Tango is one of the world's great luxuries put it alongside chocolate, single-malt Scotch and leather-bound books among life's essential pleasures.
As with American jazz, Portuguese fado or Parisian salon, tango enmeshes seeming contradictions in its hypnotic weave. It is both dark and optimistic, brooding and painfully vulnerable, erotic and intellectual.
Like the above musical styles, tango came about early in this century as farmers and peasants moved from the Argentinean countryside to Buenos Aires, bringing their disparate folk musics with them. In the city, a new music of the common people was born the tango.
At first looked down on much as the blues was in its infancy here, tango was soon embraced by the Parisian sophisticates across the Atlantic and the upper crust of Buenos Aires reconsidered. The music had become somewhat stale by the 1960s when the late master Astor Piazzolla made his mark, transforming tango from a formalized ballroom extravaganza into a living, evolving art form that borrows freely from the world's other great traditions.
Carlos Gardel was Argentina's answer to Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra. One of the earliest international figures of the then-new music recording industry, Gardel toured South America and Europe (bringing tango to Paris and international acclaim) before his death in an airplane crash in 1935.
Gardel was one of the first tango stars, a man who did for tango what Louis Armstrong did for American jazz help establish it as a legitimate art form in the eyes of the public.
Listening to Gardel for even a few bars is enough to convince anyone that no matter the tradition or form Gardel chose, he would have been recognized as a star. A new collection of Gardel's recordings, taken from 78s and digitally remastered, shows that the man is simply one of the most expressive singers ever captured on wax. He had a beautiful baritone voice; as the liner notes by Gerald Seligman point out, he could have been a world-class opera singer.
Which would have been a bit of a shame. Gardel tackled what was considered a low-brow musical style and, through talent and willpower, brought out the subtleties and complexities of tango he helped create a new art form, one that helped establish Argentinean culture in the eyes of the world.
Next to Gardel in influence and fame, or maybe even ahead of him, was the late Astor Piazzolla. A master of the bandoneon, a small, button-only relative of the accordion, Piazzolla helped transform the tango once again into a worldly, sophisticated art the music having become a bit stale in the two decades between Gardel's passing and Piazzolla's ascendency.
So large a shadow did Piazzolla cast over tango (comparable to the influence Bob Marley has had on reggae), that he is present in one form or another on the next three releases reviewed.
Pablo Ziegler played piano with Piazzolla for the last 10 years of the master's life. With Piazzolla's own death, Ziegler is now leading his own combos and has two new releases dedicated to tango on BMG Records.
Ziegler brings a classical approach to the music his version of tango is much more structured and formalized than Piazzolla's tango nuevo, which had a huge streak of American jazz running through it. Ziegler's is ornate and technically challenging, almost European in approach. Where Piazzolla's music demanded homage from your feet, Ziegler's is more cerebral his albums will haunt your mind for days on end, but they never just let loose and swing. The difference between Piazzolla and Ziegler is akin to that between Oscar Peterson and Count Basie or between Liszt and Vivaldi. One isn't necessarily better than the other, they're simply quite different in underlying philosophy.
As with Piazzolla (and the comparisons in a review are fair, given the number of comparisons in the marketing and packaging materials accompanying the two releases), Ziegler's music is dark and moody even more so. In fact, in tone and mood Ziegler is far closer to Gardel's salon style of tango than Piazzolla's sometimes raucous dance-hall version.
It's a different side to tango, one well worth exploration and one likely to continue yielding new growth in the years to come.
The band Quartango also offers a European take on Argentina's national musical style albeit by way of Montreal. The band's second release is an interesting amalgam of French Canadian, jazz and Argentinean styles; not far removed from the Quebeçois folk of Montreal in its stew-like approach.
What really sets this album, "Compadres," apart is using flute as the lead instrument. Guest flutist Robert Cram plays the lead on five of the 13 songs (including three of the four Piazzolla tunes performed here), and it lends the music a folksy, earthy element that provides nice balance to the heavily structured arrangements.
Another distinctive touch to the music of Quartango is the voicing. The word "medieval" isn't exactly right, but there is an element of early Western folk music coupled to the contemporary tango nuevo somewhat reminiscent of the way Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span melded Middle English and modern rock into a seamless, organic whole.
As with Ziegler, Quartango is taking the music and branching out in new directions that are both listenable and challenging and always quite interesting.
Surprisingly, the Yo-Yo Ma set holds up well against the other contemporary tango artists. Or perhaps it shouldn't be surprising after all, he traveled to Buenos Aires and surrounded himself with Piazzolla's former sidemen and other front-rank tango artists for this recording.
What is unexpected is that of the tango nuevo CDs reviewed here, Ma's is the least structured. The classical musician has turned in a swinging, danceable tribute to Piazzolla that is far closer to the last master's work than either Ziegler's releases or Quartango's.
A good portion of the credit needs to go to bandoneonista Nestor Marconi, who captures the essence of Piazzolla's sound without ever sounding like a thief. And the trio of guitarists (Horacio Malvicino, Sergio and Odair Assad) provide both counterpoint to Ma's cello and rhythm accompaniment.
But most importantly, the classically trained and inclined Ma displays a real ear for the music, and his familiarity with the Romantic period has certainly taught him how to incorporate the cello as a lead instrument in a small combo.
And on his own leads and solos he plays with a passion and fire that lift the performance up that much more.
Finally, in either special treat or horrible sacrilege, Ma and producer Oscar Castro-Neves record Ma playing with unreleased tracks by the late Piazzolla. The result is kind of neat, but folks who felt Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" mocked history are likely to be just as unforgiving of Ma.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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