Thursday, July 09, 2009
Raras Partituras 4 – Horacio Salgán (Epsa Music 2008)
Pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Horacio Salgán marked his 90th birthday in 2006, and the nonprofit musical organization TangoVia Buenos Aires has been celebrating the milestone with a series of musical events, including concerts, film productions, and the recent release of this interesting recording. Salgán is one of the last living masters from the heyday of the genre: aside from his innovative orquesta work from the 1940s, he is also a founding member of the Quinteto Real, a cornerstone ensemble of post-golden age tango that is still active today in various formations (though no longer featuring Salgán himself at the piano). Several of Salgán’s compositions, including “Don Agustín Bardi” and “A fuego lento,” have become standard repertoire, and his work as an arranger is widely considered just as musically significant as his composing. His musical voice is distinctly but subtly modern, incorporating innovative melodic, harmonic, and formal features into the core gestural vocabulary of tango without embracing the more jarring kinds of musical ruptures favored by Piazzolla and some of his followers. Indeed, whereas one could argue that Piazzolla’s musical innovations only supercharged the already existing features of the genre’s core emotional vocabulary—passion, violence, oblivion—Salgán’s music expanded that vocabulary such that it could account for things like joy and exhilaration, resulting in an at times “happy tango” sound that would be something of an oxymoron in any less capable hands.
All this and more is on display in this album, the latest in a series that began with violinist Ramiro Gallo’s excellent recording of the same name, which I would translate as “unusual scores” (Epsa Music 2006). And the album is a bit unusual. Divided into three parts, the first 10 tracks feature new studio performances of Salgán’s solo piano music, most if not all of which has only previously been heard by Salgán’s students or close associates. The second part features four of Salgán’s compositions and/or arrangements for orquesta típica and other instrumental configurations from the 1940s and 50s, recorded live at a recent concert by the Gran Orquesta TangoVia under the direction of Salgán’s son César, who also plays piano with the group. The final three tracks of the album are indeed “unusual scores,” or, as the case may be, unusual archival recordings, which Salgán’s deliberately selected from his private collection for the occasion of this release. These include Salgán’s first commercial recording (a Brazilian chorro!), a previously unreleased 1946 demo of Salgán’s “Mis calles porteñas” (a solo piano arrangement of which starts off the album), and a 30 some year old home recording of an organ fueled jazz waltz dedicated to César Salgán.
The scope and range of Salgán’s musical appetite is immediately evident in the solo piano music included here. Nicely performed by Andrés Linetzky, one of the few important pianists active in the contemporary tango scene to have studied directly with Salgán, these pieces at once bring to mind the Romantic grandiosity of Gershwin, the intricate playfulness of Joplin, and even the wide-intervaled modernism of Herbie Hancock’s classic Blue Note recordings. The eclecticism of this material, which includes not only tangos but also zambas (a genre of Argentine folkloric music) and some Brazilian forms, is such that one could not be faulted for forgetting that this music is by one of the foremost composers of modern tango; the telltale síncopa accompaniment patterns and other typical gestures of the genre can be heard in these pieces, though often well below the surface. Such is not the case of the ensemble music included later in the recording, where the varied instrumentation of the larger orquesta brings out the driving bite of what are often rather cerebral compositions and arrangements. This is where Salgán’s unique contributions to the genre can most easily be heard and appreciated. Take, for example, his arrangement of the Expósitos’ hyper-standard “Naranjo en flor” (1944). Usually a vehicle for the kind of “grasa” vocal performances that are both the best and the worst thing about tango, here the orquesta supports the singer with an almost organically developing accompaniment that makes the rather unusual features of the arrangement—the countermelodies that extend across vocal phrases, the dense passages of rhythmic counterpoint—sound as if they were standard practice. These same tendencies can be heard in Salgán’s arrangement of De Caro’s “Flores negras” for piano and strings, though here the intricacy of the musical ideas at times bog down the overall flow of the piece.
This, of course, is the risk that Salgán necessarily takes with his particular musical approach, which, when considered in broader perspective, speaks to both the appeal and the somewhat polemic aspect of his musical legacy as a whole. While he is now clearly entrenched within the tango canon (as evidenced by connoisseur recordings such as this), many tango listeners continue to be somewhat reluctant if not suspicious about his work, feeling that his modernist tendencies depart too far from the popular musical roots of the genre. Either way, this recording clearly demonstrates that it is worth giving even the most “unusual” aspects of Salgán’s complex musical world another careful listen.
Thursday, July 02, 2009
Tango Actual Returns; Astillero at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Joe's Pub (NYC)
Friday, February 08, 2008
Fernando Otero at Joe’s Pub
Fernando Otero is an Argentine pianist and composer who has been based in New York for a number of years now. This concert—my first review of a live show in quite some time—marked the release of his first album on Nonesuch Records, Pagina de Buenos Aires (2008). This recording will no doubt go a long way towards making Otero a star here in the States, though he has already gotten a lot of attention from fellow musicians. Otero has recently performed and recorded some of his music with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and the new music super group (and Nonesuch label mates) Kronos Quartet are scheduled to premiere a new piece of his at Carnegie Hall later this month. However, those who are not new to Otero’s music will be disappointed in that much if not most of the “new” recording has in fact been culled from previous releases, including 2003’s Plan, featuring mixed ensembles, and 2005’s Revision, a densely haunting duet recording with violinist Nick Danielson. I can understand why Otero’s new label would not want to title their first album with him “Fernando Otero’s Greatest Hits,” but I, for one, hope that Nonesuch gets sufficient return on their investment in Otero to warrant producing genuinely new material for future releases.
This concert featured Otero and violinist Danielson in their duo format, and illustrated the productively uncomfortable space Otero’s music straddles between tango, jazz, and “classical” composition. Given that mix, we may be tempted to think of Otero as some kind of heir apparent to Piazzolla, though listening to his music does not really justify such comparisons. While some of Otero’s recorded material nods at tango—with marcatos, síncopas, arrastres and other genre markers utilized sparingly—here the most obvious “tangoism” was the violinist’s occasional percussive scratching on the strings behind the bridge. That and the general violence of the music, though even that was taken to nearly unrecognizable extremes. At even his most bombastic, Piazzolla’s music is violent the way the knife-wielding malevos of early tango songs were violent, killing with honor, grace, skill, and dignity, but killing nonetheless. Otero’s music, on the other hand, goes at you with his bare hands, suddenly grabbing you and shaking you, tossing you aside abruptly and almost indifferently when it is all over.
Otero plays the piano with that same kind of manic energy, attacking the keyboard with his whole body so that hardly a moment goes by without all ten fingers solidly in the game. This makes for an exhilarating racket, especially when he concentrates in the lower register of the instrument, though I thought it was somewhat less effective in more mid range, melodic passages, especially given the sparse instrumentation. Danielson, for his part, matched this intensity throughout, skillfully executing pieces that unfolded like a series of disjointed outbursts rather than some kind of sequential journey. In a short piece for solo violin, Danielson sawed away at his instrument with the energy of an old time fiddler keeping a dancing room on its feet. And while dancing would be a highly unlikely response to Otero’s music, I could imagine how well his ideas would translate to the string quartet format, and I look forward to hearing his work for Kronos.
Indeed, Otero’s overall musical voice, at least on this night, seems to have much more in common with the edgy modernism of the composers that Kronos championed before they went on their world music binge than any kind of tango music, contemporary or otherwise. So while it might feel natural to mention Otero in the same breath as someone like Piazzolla, comparing his music to the dissonant expressiveness of composers like Shostakovich or Messiaen would in fact be more appropriate. Gratefully, Nonesuch does not seem to be promoting Otero as a tango musician for tango audiences, an association that, let’s face it, would probably either miss or close the ears of the listeners that will really be interested in this music. That said, Otero, for now, is living in the shadow of tango and seems to be enjoying it quite a bit. About half way through the set, he channeled Augustus Pablo by picking up a melodica and taking the audience on an avant-garde romp through “La Cumparsita.” Knowing glances flashed across the room as the many tango fans in the audience recognized the classic/cliché song. And while the musicians were clearly making an artistic statement with this inside joke, next time hopefully not so many people will get it.
Monday, January 07, 2008
Julio Pane, Instantáneas (EPSA Music) 2007.
Once you learn the basics, however, the possibilities of the instrument seem almost unlimited. To all the melodic and harmonic capacities of a piano the bandoneón adds expressiveness and control of a wind instrument: true sustain, crescendo and diminuendo, vibrato, popping accents, etc. It is a shame that its use has been limited almost entirely to tango. (As one classically trained player I met told me, only playing tango with the bandoneón is like only playing blues with the piano; both are great traditions, but the instruments are capable of a lot more.) At the same time, enduring through the difficulties of mastering an essentially extinct instrument and using it to create a rich musical world apart feels like an apt (if overly romantic) metaphor for tango itself, if not Argentina as a whole.
The full extent of that world apart is beautifully captured in Instantáneas (“snapshots”), the recent recording by Julio Pane (pronounced “pa-knee”). Many musicians I know consider Pane the best bandoneonist alive, if not the best of all time, and do so without hesitation. An absolute master of the instrument, Pane has performed with many of tango’s great figures—Salgán, Federico, Piazzolla—though he never reached their heights of fame. The consummate musicians’ musician, there are, to my knowledge, only two previous recordings that featuring Pane’s musical voice front and center, one a trio date (A las orquestas, EPSA Music 2000) and the other a duo with guitarist Juanjo Domínguez (Un placer, EPSA Music 2003). Here, all accompaniment is left aside in favor of Pane’s solo bandoneón, recreating the warmly intimate setting of Pane’s now legendary weekly gigs at the Miramar restaurant in the perennially unfashionable but deeply tanguero Buenos Aires neighborhood of Boedo. At Miramar, it was just Pane, his instrument, and his profound familiarity with the tango repertoire. He would improvise his way through the classics like a great jazz pianist playing near background music in a no-name bar, creating intricate musical worlds that are both familiar and new, disappearing forever just as effortlessly as they came into being.
In his brief liner notes to this disc, Pane expresses some reservation at attempting to recreate the informality of his Miramar gigs in the obviously less familiar context of the recording studio. “It is one thing to improvise in public and a very different thing to do a recording without a written note,” he says, “where there was no other option than to do everything in one take.” We all have producer Ignacio Varchausky to thank for talking Pane into it, because the results are truly stunning, all the more so because they are improvised. There are the playful melodic fantasies of “Chiclana” and the dissonant rhythmic bite of “Chiqué;” the syncopated frolic of “Shusheta” and the brooding melancholy of “Una emoción;” the lush romanticism of “Flores negras,” where the organ-like capacity of the bandoneón can be plainly heard, and the emotional whirlwind of “Los mareados.” The single notated arrangement included here, of Pane’s original composition “Mi María,” highlights his modern tendencies, with unexpected harmonic modulations under a motivic melodic gesture. It is a compelling piece, if lacking some of the playfulness of the improvised performances.
This is a great—if intense—recording, with none of the 14 pieces breaking the five minute mark. As accessible (and jaw dropping) as it is on the first spin, it will reward repeated close listening, opening up the individual pieces which, the first few times through, can begin to blend into one another. The best thing of all is that this is apparently the first in a series of solo bandoneón recordings that will be produced by Varchausky and his TangoVia Buenos Aires foundation and released by EPSA Music in the coming years. Rumor has it that future editions of this “art of the bandoneón” series, some of which are already in the works, will include the playing and music of Néstor Marconi and the legendary Leopoldo Federico. If anything like this recording, those future editions will be both musically and historically significant.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Walter “Chino” Laborde y Diego “Dipi” Kvitko, Tango Tango Volumen 1 (Típica Records) 2006.
Unfortunately, as the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro has moved more firmly in the rockero direction over the past few years—with heavier accents, faster tempos, and (at times monotonously) louder volumes—they have left little if any room for the more subtle aspects of Laborde’s voice. This is too bad, not only because they essentially waste Laborde’s many real talents as a singer, but because without the musical nuance his goofball performances with the group can begin to border on kitsch. Listening to the recent recording Tango Tango Volumen 1, then, I can’t help but imagine that Laborde has been feeling the same way.
Here, in lieu of the large orquesta, the setting is reduced to the bare minimum of Laborde’s voice and the single guitar of Diego “Dipi” Kvitko. They focus on the greatest of the great songs from the classic tango repertoire, which are supplemented by one original vals by Laborde and an instrumental milonga by Kvitko. Their devotion to this repertoire is articulated through genre designations that operate as a lexicon of enthusiastic Argentine slang, and provide the title of the album. These songs are not just tangos, but tango tangos or tangazos (including “Cristal,” “Cuando me entrés a fallar,” “9 de Julio,” and other classiscs).
Lyrics for the songs are usefully printed in the liner notes, and while there is no English translation provided, cracking open the Spanish dictionary would be highly rewarded as understanding even the gist of the texts will greatly enhance your appreciation of the songs. It will also help you understand why the disc comes packaged with a small dagger: when, at the final verse of “Antiguo reloj de cobre,” an apparition of the desperately broke narrator’s dead mother appears before him to tell him that his deceased father forgives him for pawning the family’s heirloom copper watch for just “four dirty pesos,” you are going to want to plunge the metaphoric blade in your heart like Romeo over Juliet. That’s why they call it tango tango!
If the songs are great, the performances are good. The duo format makes the songs flexible as if made of soft clay, which I am sure is thrilling for musicians who might feel suffocated by larger ensembles. But all too often that same flexibility impedes the overall drive of a song, especially at the conclusions, where songs that you want to explode with a bang here tend to fade with a quiet sigh. Kvitko, who also plays in the quartet of legendary guitarist Aníbal Arias, is a proficient guitarist and nice arranger, but he just does not have the power to keep up with Laborde in this intimate of a setting. On the recording, the mismatch between the two performers is at worst distracting; when playing live (I heard them last year in Buenos Aires) Kvitko might as well be in another room. The record picks up on the handful of tracks that feature an ensemble of three or four guitarists, a more familiar instrumentation for accompanying sung tangos like these, and for good reason. These songs are often larger than life, as are those, like Laborde, who sing them convincingly. If his work with large ensembles has not given Laborde enough space with the songs, the duo, almost ironically, gives him too much.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Cuarteto Cedrón, Frisón Frisón (Acqua Records) 2006.
Cedrón does this not by bridging tango’s post-Piazzolla tendencies towards either the popular or the erudite—party music or concert music—but by obliterating them. With its lumbering, lunging rhythmic base and its organic approach to melodic and harmonic development, Cedrón’s music renders tango’s dearly held divisions between high and low, popular and art, simple and complex irrelevant and, frankly, almost embarrassing. That it does this in an unobtrusive way makes it all that much more refreshing. Cedrón’s music does not bang you over the head: it is not going to start an artistic revolution or launch a thousand ships. No, like the knife-wielding compadritos that inhabit Borges’ fictions, Cedrón’s music waits patiently along the edge of the action, absorbed in its immediate concerns, almost unnoticed. It will strike only when provoked, but kill you with the flair of an artist when it does… Ok, Ok, I am getting carried away, but you need to hear this guy!
Cedrón is quite a bit older than many of the artists I write about here, a member of the so-called “lost generation” of musicians committed to tango between the end of its “golden age” in the late 1950s and the current renovation of the genre. Even within that group, Cedrón is something of an outsider, having lived in France for nearly thirty years and only recently returning to Buenos Aires for good. During his years abroad, Cedrón released a long series of excellent recordings that together trace the evolutionary consistency of his unique music, of which this recent disc, Frisón Frisón, is a logical extension. His compositions, often rooted in the traditional rhythmic and structural frameworks of tango, milonga campera, and vals, grumble along in a space between oblivion and ecstasy, violence and tenderness, hope and abandonment, but without sentimentality. His arrangements and ensemble favor the lower registers, highlighting the left hand of the bandoneón and substituting a viola for the violin, which do not support his voice as much as dance around it. And what a voice it is. Imagine if Neil Young had been born in Argentina and spent thirty years in Latin Quarter cafes smoking cigarettes and sipping vino tinto with soda late into the night, giving him an oddly delicate and nasal high register and a gravelly, almost coughing low end. Add a PhD in Latin American literature to that image we begin to approach Juan Cedrón. Indeed, Cedrón’s near scholarly engagement with literature is at the heart of his musical concept, which involves setting preexisting texts by Argentine writers to new, original music. These texts, of course, were usually not intended to be used this way, but one would never know it when listening to Cedrón’s careful settings. Many of his recordings concentrate on the work of a singe author—often giants like Cortázar or Tuñón. With Frisón Frisón, Cedrón applies himself to the unedited material of super lyricist Homero Manzi (1907—1951).
Marking the centennial year of Manzi’s birth, the songs heard here are alternately reserved and bawdy, and feature Cedrón’s voice not only in the company of his eponymous quartet of guitar, bandoneón, viola and bass but also an ensemble of four guitars (a classic setting for tango song) and even an orquesta típica. This last group is featured on an (ironically) instrumental piece by one of Manzi’s most celebrated collaborators, Aníbal Troilo. This large ensemble piece gives a nice sense of context for the kind of music Manzi was listening to in his day, but the project really shines on Cedrón’s original compositions. The slow agony of “Espejito de agua” dissolves into a concluding passage of solo viola, over which Cedrón, in a speaking voice, almost whispers the final lines. “Mala estrella” features lovely interplay between the voice, the viola, and the bandoneón, making it sound as if it was conceived as a trio for tango ensemble rather than a tango song. The texts themselves, of course, are a pleasure, though I am not enough of an expert on Manzi to know how big of a contribution releasing these songs will make to our understanding of him as an artist and historical figure. Though all in all, this recording makes a great introduction to two fascinating figures, Manzi and Cedrón.
Monday, May 28, 2007
La Chicana at the Torcuato Tasso
This was the last of four shows that La Chicana played at the Torcuato Tasso over the past two weekends, and the place was more crowded than I have ever seen it. They even had extra tables set up in the back hallway by the bathrooms, and every seat was taken. For good reason, too: while La Chicana is well known and liked in Argentina, you would probably be more likely to see them play live in London or Madrid, where they tour regularly, than you would here in Buenos Aires, where they play only a few times a year. Maybe it was the size of the crowd or the rarity of the occasion—or maybe it was the simple excitement of it being Saturday night in Buenos Aires again—but there was a real charge in the air before the music got started. That energy made for a great temporary adieu to the Tasso itself, which is going to be closed for at least the next month while the building is renovated.
The cosmopolitanism of La Chicana’s performance schedule is reflected in their music, making them sound like much more than a tango band, though their songs, style, and attitude are clearly rooted in the genre. Or, I should say, in the genre’s roots. Centered around the core duo of singer Dolores Solá and songwriter/guitarist Acho Estol, La Chicana draws their inspiration from tango’s formative moment in the early 20th century, when the genre was just beginning to emerge from the social and musical mix of immigrant Buenos Aires. So while they are one of the few contemporary groups to write and perform original tangos—no small feat in the highly critical and nostalgic atmosphere that surrounds the genre today—the group positions themselves more as time traveling participants in early tango history than some kind of contemporary vanguard. Which is not to say that their music sounds old. Indeed, their poppy mix of guitar, electric bass, violin, bandoneón, and percussion would probably go over as well if not better in international world music venues like Joe’s Pub in New York than it would in some Buenos Aires tango clubs.
At the same time, they are not a world music band: while La Chicana’s overall style and instrumentation are clearly influenced by international pop music of all sorts, at the musical level Estol’s original songs adhere quite strictly to the general characteristics of tango and its two related sub-genres, milonga and vals. In other words, when they play tango they play tango, they just also happen to play cumbias, chacarreras, fados, and Tom Waits covers (translated into Spanish, of course). They even do a funky rendition of the first movement from J.S. Bach’s concerto for two violins, BWV 1043! Violinist Osiris Rodríguez—who along with being the hardest working man in tango, playing not only with La Chicana but also other key groups such as El Arranque and Astillero, is also an accomplished classical musician—knocked out the Bach piece from memory. Meanwhile bandoneonist Patricio “Tripa” Bonfiglio, who played the second violin part and whose experience in baroque chamber music is probably a bit more limited, was glued to his music, sweating away.
Aside from these and other instrumental acrobatics, the real star of the show was singer Dolores Solá, a woman who has more glamour in her French-manicured pinky finger than all the rest of the tango musicians in town combined. On stage Solá comes off as larger than life, like a move star on the screen (she in fact did appear in the recent Argentine film Ciudad en Celo (City in Heat), whose soundtrack was done by Estol). Her stage presence is backed up by her voice, which is at once powerful and delicate, both serious and playful. She brings little to none of the “grasa” tear-jerking so standard among mainstream tango singers with her to the stage, instead relying on an expressive nimbleness that can have her sounding like a seductive lover in one phrase and a scolding mother in the next, all the while keeping firmly at the helm of the party that is La Chicana’s live show.
Combined with Estol’s highly original, varied, and memorable songs, Solá and the band come across as quirky and irreverent without being ironic or distanced, rooted in the tango tradition without loosing themselves in devotion to it. It is a refreshing combination, and I am ready to wait it out for my next chance to hear them live, however long that might be.
La Chicana, Lejos (Acqua Records) 2006.