Tango's Last Dance?
The Pablo Ziegler Quintet Takes Traditional Tango In A New Direction.
By Brendan Doherty
AUGUST 25, 1997: IT ISN'T A sigh, or a whisper. It's the life's gasp, a frenzied, ritualized mating dance enshrouded in pheromones, spice and the clacking of heels; a bullfight set to music. But before you bring out your milonga shoes, this tango music is different. Don't worry, it is not the lambada, and Patrick Swayze has no chance of coming near it. It's called nuevo tango, an exotic and rare blend of jazz, classical, and traditional tango.
With such passionate roots, structure and possibility for improvisation, it has fans of each genre scrambling to the record stores, thumbing through the CD import bins looking for the Ellington or the Gershwin of the genre, Astor Piazzola.
Piazzola has been the fascination of musicians from every scope, as evidenced by the recent Al Di Meola record of Piazzola covers. The famed composer and bandoneon player (a small version of the accordion) died in 1992. Pablo Ziegler, pianist with Piazzola's ensembles between 1978 and 1988, has taken up the yoke of pushing tango into new forms, down new alleys, and into new musical venues with his new quintet. Where Piazzola was a classicist, Ziegler's yen is jazz. Neither was welcome in the world of tango. The tangueros were ostracized as if they were a third sex.
"Astor transformed our Buenos Aires music," Ziegler says. "He wrote new tangos with mixes from Bartok, jazz, and old tangos. The result is 'nuevo tango.' In that moment all of the traditional tangueros wanted to kill him. They said, 'This is not tango!' Piazzola had good training with old-style orchestras, and he wanted to create a music that was tango, but was also for more than just dancing. It has an incredible passion. He wanted to create tangos that were meant for listening."
Piazzola's transformation of the national music led to such animosity that he left Argentina in the early '60s.
TANGO IS SULTRY and passionate, and has, since the 1880s, been about dancing. The music's exotic quality comes from its early history in Argentina's colonial melting pot: Italians, Spaniards, Eastern Europeans and Jews who arrived in the late 1800s in Argentina and intermingled with the local Spanish, transplanted Africans and native peoples. When Buenos Aires became the capital, men danced in predatory competition in tango style for brides, like rams butting heads in the mountains. Despite being banned by the Catholic Church, the tango swept the nation--and later the city of Paris, where it was the first of many Latin dances to reach the European continent.
During this time, the songs and the playing style, much like the Mariachi music of northern Mexico, became canonized. Both possessed elements strongly rooted in the culture: To break from them was an act of pride that said the errant player thought he was bigger than the dance.
Nothing is bigger than the dance. Except, perhaps Piazzola. In the mid-1950s, Piazzola began to write operas and concertos based on the tangos. The brash bandoneon player was striving--like Ellington with his Black and Tan Suite and Harlem Nocturne--to elevate a folk music to the prominence and scholarly level of the classical rather than the simpler form of hybridizing with pop. Like Strauss' elevation of the waltz to a symphonic suite, Piazzola succeeded in hybridizing the music to such a degree of complexity and musical texture as to celebrate the old while allowing the music to speak a more erudite and subtle language.
Where before its colors were anger, sex, and revenge, now it held more. Like the others, Piazzola elevated the 19th century music born in the bars and the brothels, and turned it into a form of its own: a new Creole musical language as complex as any of the worlds' music. It is at once the combined essence of gypsy wandering, minor-chord sadness, and traditional tango rhythm with both melodic freedom and orchestral compositional structure. It is fascinating.
Piazzola returned to Argentina in 1978. By then, most had acknowledged that the world had changed, and the music had to as well.
Ziegler has emerged as baton-bearer from Piazzola's innovative strain. Where Piazzola leaned toward classical formalism, Ziegler and his quintet push toward McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Latin-influenced pianist Lenny Tristano.
"When I first played with Astor, I would improvise in a way that brought my jazz influence to the music," Ziegler says. "But he quickly changed my direction toward modern tango style. Many times I would improvise and he would say, 'No, this is not tango, it's jazz. Play tango!' "
And, tango it is. Shifting, scintillatingly elusive and exotic rhythms pulse from Ziegler's quintet, rhythms always just out of reach, drawing the listener in for a taste of the passionate unknown. It's fun to listen to, though at times it strays a tad too far from its origin of the fiery, dance-driven tango.
"I try to continue in that way, the way of the tango," Ziegler
says. "Tango is a pretty good thing to play. I dance it, and I like to feel the rhythm with my mind and the heart. I try to translate the movement in that. I'm no real dancer; I only know a couple of steps. When I play, though, my piano is my partner. I try to make a couple with my piano, feel the tango rhythm with the body and dance with the music."
Pablo Ziegler and his Quintet for New Tango perform at 8 p.m. Friday, August 22, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Performance will be followed by a tango exhibition featuring Mara Luna y El Brujo, with dancing in the courtyard afterwards. All concert seats are reserved, and tickets are $17, $14 for TJS and KXCI members. Ticket outlets include Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave.; and KXCI radio, 220 S. Fourth Ave. For information and credit card orders, call 623-1000. For information on a tango workshop and scholarship program on Saturday, August 23, call Mara at 791-3073.
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