Thursday, April 4, 2013

Piazzolla in New York (I): Brooklyn 2011

Astor Piazzolla is one of the outstanding musicians of the 20th century, one of those figures like the late Ravi Shankar or Paco de Lucía who have transcended borders, cultures, and labels by taking on the music of their own backyards, giving it a personal twist, and making it appealing to audiences throughout the world.

The bandoneonist and composer – his music education included stints with Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires and Nadia Boulanger in Paris – had a long career and a good selection of his records wouldn't be out of place in the collection of any music lover. As with any artist, it would be hard to say which is the best of his albums, and that quite pointless question would probably provoke some heated and pointless debates.

However, we might find some consensus on which is his worst recording, or at least the most boring one. A firm candidate would be Take Me Dancing (Tico 1066), recorded in New York in 1959. Piazzolla had lived in New York as a child, and he returned for a couple of years, from 1958 to 1960, with the intention of "making it" the US market. Maybe because this period is sandwiched between the recordings of the "Octeto Buenos Aires", and his return to the Argentinian capital and the first recording of "Adiós, Nonino", this North-American episode has been somewhat forgotten. Piazzolla himself doesn't help: there are quite a few stories (some by his son Daniel) about his reluctance to talk about it or even his cursing and disowning at the memory of this album, which he had approached, at least in principle, as a fusion of jazz and tango. Besides, for once the critics and the artist agree completely, with very few exceptions, such as Diego Fischerman and Abel Gilbert, in their recent analytical study of Piazzolla's life and work, Piazzolla, el Mal Entendido (Edhasa, Buenos Aires, 2009).

It was precisely this exception which piqued Brooklyn-based Argentinian bass player Pablo Aslan's curiosity and made him re-visit Take Me Dancing. Aslan has been delving in the common ground between jazz and tango for some years now and he already knew Take Me Dancing, and when he went back to the record, he confronted three main problems: first, the rhythm provided by güiro and bongos, which gets repetitive to the point of exhaustion; second, there are too many ideas crammed into the arrangements (with no track going beyond the 3-minute mark); and third, for all of Piazzolla's good intentions to find a middle ground between jazz and tango, he didn't venture too far from his safety zone – for some reason, he chose not to use a typical rhythm section (with trap set), nor did he took advantage of the quality of his sidemen: for instance, a soloist like Eddie Costa (by then a young veteran, with hundreds of recording sessions, three dates as a leader and a couple of Downbeat awards) only gets 12 and 8 bars in “Triunfal” and “Plus Ultra” respectively. All in all, because of the arrangements and the percussionists' work, this music sounds too rigid and even repetitive.

Aslan's achievement is to have really soaked that album in jazz, relaxing the rhythmic stiffness and expanding sections that Piazzolla left underdeveloped and deserved further exploration, letting everyone in the band take solos, making Piazzolla in Brooklyn (Soundbrush Records, SR 1023) a true collective effort. In it, Aslan revisits nine of Take Me Dancing's twelve tracks. Cleverly, Aslan has left out “Sophisticated Lady” and “April in Paris” that would have been the easiest to move closer to jazz. The other one is a Piazzolla original, “Boricua”, as well as the frankly inexplicable “La Coquette”, only available as the B-side of “Lullaby of Birdland”, which was released as a 7” single, and in a Japanese reissue (P-Vine PCD-2877, 1994). “La Coquette” is not tango, nor jazz, but something closer to a commercial jingle, possibly recorded to make time in the studio, as we'll see in a later post.

Aslan has tweaked the group’s line-up too, getting rid of vibes and the “Latin” percussion. Thus, he’s accompanied by Nicolás Enrich (bandoneon), Gustavo Bergalli (trumpet), Abel Rogantini (piano) and Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla, Astor's grandson (drums & cymbals), with the leader himself on bass. Here, Aslan has also played his cards wisely. For starters, he's let a member of the family, Pipi Piazzolla, take charge of the most important part of the refurbishing job, providing the music with a lighter and more varied rhythmic background, and he has done great, giving a new air to the music almost single-handedly. But most importantly, there's the very tricky question of who gets to play bandoneon on a revision of Piazzolla's work. Here, Aslan has opted for freshness and youth, in age and as a practitioner of the instrument: Enrich, 21 when this was recorded, played guitar until he got knocked out by Astor's music and has stuck to the bandoneon ever since. There are other nice details, like the first track of the album: To set the atmosphere, Aslan has chosen "Calle 92" which is not from Take Me Dancing but from Piazzolla interpreta a Piazzolla (RCA, 1961). Not only it's a sort of blues and an explicit nod to those "lost" years ("Calle 92" is Manhattan's West 92nd Street, where Piazzolla lived at no. 292), but Bergalli takes his first solo with a stem-less Harmon mute, a sound forever linked to Miles Davis, who was recording his classic Kind of Blue in the same city and at about the same time as Piazzolla did Take Me Dancing.

Besides all the homages or historical anecdotes, Aslan has produced a record which is fascinating on its own merit, full of energy, subtleties and drama, realizing the compositions' potential beyond what Piazzolla himself was able to achieve at the time. It would have been interesting to know his opinion. That's impossible, of course, but I guess that the second best option is knowing the opinion of one of the musicians in the original album:
The recording by this Brooklyn kid, Aslan, is brilliant! My general impression is that they are extraordinarily dynamic. What is missing, perhaps is the kind of sound Piazzolla got from his bandoneon, a sort of... I don't know how to explain it, a sound with a tinge of sadness, I don't how to put that into words... But the way they play, in general, is extraordinary, the piano solos are excellent, as well as the bass player's. This is a very good record, the technique is spotless, they could improvise with anyone... They are true virtuosi! The trumpet player is phenomenal... and the bass... all of them, really.
And he compares this new record with the original:
For instance, back in '59, I only knew a little about what's going on in jazz, be-bop, what they play... the trumpet player is very good at it, so, regarding American listeners, it'll be easier to identify with their style rather than with Piazzolla's at the time.
This burst of enthusiasm for Aslan's record comes from 88-year old Carlos Rausch, the pianist (not percussionist, as some sources say) on Take Me Dancing. In the next few entries, his first ever interview about Piazzolla, he will tell us about him, the recording of Take Me Dancing, and what was life like for a Argentinian working in late-1950s New York.



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Piazzolla in Brooklyn is on tour now: April 5-6 in Buenos Aires (Argentina), later in the month in New York, Chicago, and Miami Beach. See this and this for more details.

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1 comment:

Claude W said...

Fascinating read and certainly grateful for shedding some light on this very obscure work!