Monday, February 26, 2007
Escalandrum and Pablo Ziegler Trío at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
This was jazz and tango night at the festival, and I have to say, given the eclecticism of the groups I had heard the night before, that I am impressed with the broad understanding of contemporary tango that the producers of the festival obviously brought to the table when making their booking decisions.
Escalandrum is a jazz sextet led by drummer Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla, Astor’s grandson. They are one of the key groups among what is by now a large, well established, and highly organized local jazz scene here in Buenos Aires. I don’t make a point of keeping up with the jazz scene here, partially because aside from a few players like pianist Adirán Iaies I have not really liked a lot of what I have heard, either live or on disc. Call me a jazz snob, I probably deserve it, but this was very much the case the first and last time I heard Escalandrum play at a local club, which was over two years ago now. Bringing my preexisting doubts to this concert, I was happy and, I hate to say, surprised to hear how much better this group has gotten since the last time I heard them. Piazzolla’s drumming has gotten much more subtle, and the group’s pianist, whose name I don’t know, played several compelling solos. The group’s original compositions and arrangements are also much more diverse and robust than before. While they don’t depart too far from modern jazz a la Miles Davis’s quintet with Wayne Shorter et al, they have something to say and they say it. The band did indulge in a few moments of nearly arrhythmic fluff, which seems to be popular among jazz players here, and the three saxophone horn section seems a little limited, but all in all I was quite impressed and think I need to get over myself and go hear more local jazz.
The real draw of the night was pianist Pablo Ziegler, who now lives (I think) in New York and makes relatively infrequent appearances here in Buenos Aires. Ziegler played with Astor Piazzolla for many years, and is featured on Piazzolla’s quintet recordings on the Nonesuch label that are well known in the US. His performances always incorporate a fair amount of Piazzolla’s music as well as his own original compositions that depart more or less directly from those of his ex-boss. They are punchy, edgy, and extremely virtuosic, making for music that is at times more jaw dropping than really memorable, but always worth seeing. The main difference that Ziegler brings to this modern tango repertoire is jazz-like improvisation, opening up each song for sometimes extended improvised solos. This is interesting to listen to not only for what the musicians have to say with each piece, but because the “swing” of tango, its overall rhythmic feel, is in many ways the exact opposite of that heard in jazz. (Jazz emphasizes the second and fourth beat of the bar, whereas tango emphasizes the first and third, just for starters.)
The band Ziegler featured tonight was a trio of piano, bandoneón, and guitar. The bandoneónist ripped through his charts and solos with blistering speed and precision; the guitarist was all over his instrument but remained calm and collected throughout. Ziegler himself attacked his instrument with his characteristic virtuosity, intensity, and romanticism, which was made more impressive by the fact that it all appeared to be so easy for him that he seemed like he was almost bored at times. I think that bored look, in all honesty, is a characteristic feature of truly great musicianship, if not a truly great musician.
Despite all the fireworks going off on stage, the band seemed to lack an overall driving energy or groove, which I think, like the night before, was due more to the extreme echo of the performance space than the musicians. Especially with a group as subtle as this, and one that lacks a bass player, drummer, or other driving instrument, the sonic muddiness of the room could easily swallow up any musical oomph put out into it. My theory was proved right when Pipi Piazzolla joined the group on drums for a quick rendition of Astor’s hyper-famous “Libertango.” The drums brought the energy up a notch, which could be noted in the more enthusiastic response from the audience during and after that song. I hate to complain about the space so much, because there would be nothing to do about it except not use it, and that, for now, is not a viable option. It is, however, a shame to hear a band as good as this be impeded by their venue.
Omar Giammarco Quinteto and Malena Muyala at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
When inviting an Argentine friend of mine to go to this show with me she declined, instead choosing to go to a different festival event. She gave as her excuse the fact that “those guys don’t really play tango.” This is a criticism you hear a lot in Buenos Aires these days, especially regarding relatively younger musicians or people who try to change up tango even the slightest bit. That is not to say that everyone here is musically closed minded, just that the boundaries of tango—just like any so-called “national” genre—are policed pretty vigilantly in some circles.
In this case, it turns out that this perennial criticism was somewhat well deserved, especially regarding Giammarco, whose group was oriented around Uruguayan candombe, the Argentine carnival music called murga, and contemporary singer-songwriterism as much if not more than tango. Any and all of those genres were taken equally as launching pads and landing points for Giammarco’s original songs, which were arranged for a band that included guitar, violin, drums, accordion (not bandoneón), and several other instruments. I can understand why a tango purist would hate this band, but I thought they were a lot of fun, if at times overly ironic and acid. (Giammarco’s stage presence and personality is not the most instantly likeable). That said, the main drawback of the evening had nothing to do with the band or their music, but with the acoustics of the performance space, which was inside one of the massive exhibition halls at the fair complex known as “La Rural.” With the speakers pumping out volume suitable for a concert of thousands (there were probably several hundred people there, if that), some key features of the music—like the lyrics and the violin part—were drowned out in a relentless echo.
The following group, lead by lovely Uruguayan singer Malena Muyala, suffered some of the same fate, though as their instrumentation was oriented around a more quiet sound—bass, cello, guitar, bandoneón and percussion—they were not entirely overwhelmed by the acoustics of the space. Muyala also seemed more clearly centered around tango, though she lacked the typical aggressive sexuality that many singers rely upon. Instead, her music was more quiet and introspective, creating a seemingly intimate emotional space and leading the audience into it rather than banging them over the head with love and loss, which tango does so well. This kind of performance strategy made me think that Muyala could do well in the international world music circuit. Because of her engagement with other styles and genres, her sound is somewhat more accessible than traditional tango. That accessibility, almost ironically, makes the words she is singing seem less central if not less important to the overall effect of what happens on stage, which is so different from other tango singing styles where the words are key. I don’t know how much traveling she has done, but I can imagine her doing well in New York or Europe, as long as her audiences and producers there are not thirsting for the authentic.
Rubén Juárez with the Cristian Zárate Sexteto at the IX Buenos Aires Tango Festival
This was the opening concert of the annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival, which is going to keep me pretty busy over the next ten days. The concert took place at the main outdoor stage of the city’s summer music program, a large field near the municipal airport. It was a lovely night, pleasantly mild for what has been a hot summer, and there were at least 1,000 people at the show, perhaps many more.
Everyone was there to hear Rubén Juárez, a near legendary singer and bandoneón player. Juárez is one of the principle figures to carry tango through its slump following the end of the genre’s “golden age” in the 1960s, when many earlier practitioners were passing away or passing into obscurity as other forms of music became more popular in Argentina. The minute he took the stage I instantly understood why Juárez, who I had only seen in videos before, has such a large and devoted following. His presence reached back to the last audience member and probably much further, no small feat given the scale of this performance space. He had equal command of the music, which consisted mostly of songs from the classic tango repertoire that were at once raucous and tender. He did a solo rendition of “Desencuentro” (one of the most heart-wrenching tango songs of them all), and with just his voice and his bandoneón Juárez had the audience hanging on every note, as if afraid to breathe. When the excellent backing band led by pianist Christian Zárate was added to that power, the group could really break the scales.
Unfortunately, the pace of what was becoming an unforgettable concert was interrupted by a small stream of special guests, each of which took the stage and chatted with Juárez at a small table for a few minutes before performing one song with the band. The guests included rock-turned-tango singer Javier Calamaro, blues-turned-tango singer Celeste Carballo—whose rendition of the classic “Nada,” I hate to say, was truly atrocious—and expatriate pianist Gustavo Beytelmann, who is a special guest at the festival. Pianist Osvaldo Belringieri also took the stage for a few songs, announcing that he did not want to talk, he wanted to play. That was more like it. I understand that these and other guests gave the evening a star-studded quality that the organizers must have wanted for the opening of the festival, but for me they only deflated what the real attraction of the evening was.
After all the guests had come and gone Juárez ran down a few more songs before announcing “We’re out of here, I’m hungry!” After a few of the requisite encores, we were off.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
No Bailarás at the Teatro Maipo
Here is the hook: according to the program, No Bailarás was “born as the result of a useless search for solace en the feverish night.” Nice. The line: the wonderfully and outrageously typical title of this show was “grotesca pasion trasnochada,” which I don’t think really needs translation. And the sinker: the main publicity photo of the group, which is plastered on posters all over town, shows a completely naked woman embraced from behind by her dance partner with her breasts and crotch barely covered by the strategically outstretched arms of one dancing couple and the kicking leg of another. Hmmmmm. What are you doing on Monday night?
No Bailarás, which translates as “you will not dance,” is a young tango dance company run by choreographer Silvana Grill. This show, which is running on Mondays for several weeks at the lovely art deco Teatro Maipo, features a selection of dances for three couples set to the original music of the Ramiro Gallo Quinteto. Gallo’s group, which I have written about here before, plays live on stage throughout the show, and hearing them again was the real reason I was interested in it. Indeed, even though tango dance shows—especially the extremely expensive “cena shows” at the city’s many tourist-oriented tango clubs—are the bread and butter of many a young tango musician and dancer, I have to admit that this was the first time I have been to such an espectaculo.
The show itself, while quite sexy at moments (and yes, that scene in the poster is in the show) was also refreshingly playful. The over the top passion of much staged tango can easily come off as corny at best, especially when performed with utmost sincerity, which it almost always is. In contrast, Grill and her dancers, while clearly dedicated to the fundamentals, also incorporated subtle humor, interesting twists on the stereotypical gender dynamics of tango, and interesting uses of augmented couples (three or more dancers together instead of two). Best of all, for me, was that Grill gave Gallo and his band plenty of room to show their stuff, with six of the fifteen songs incorporated into the show left as instrumental performances without dance accompaniment.
Gallo, who as far as I know did not write any of the music specifically for this show but instead gathered it from his now growing repertoire of original compositions, clearly treats tango as a classical music, with all the detailed technique and specific modes of performance and listening that implies. That project was not always served by the various crotch grabs and other semi-lewd movements incorporated into the dances, to the point that my co-attendee thought that the dancers were just making fun of things while the musicians were really trying to say something. I don’t entirely agree, and think that on the whole the choreographed pieces were quite successful, if not exactly harmonious with the music. At the very least, Grill and Gallo seem to be on the same page vis-à-vis a larger artistic projects of incorporating their own voices into the traditions of their respective mediums, work which needs to be applauded even if specific instances are not necessarily sublime.
Raul Garello Sextet at Velma Café
When one has the chance, it is always worth it to go see Raul Garello. If not exactly a “grande” of the genre, he is one of the few players to have made significant contributions to tango in its heyday that is still around and very active. A bandoneón player in the post-Piazzolla lineage, Garello spent many years in the orchestra of Anibal Triolo, contributing both original compositions and arrangements to the group in the 60s and 70s. These days, he can most commonly be seen leading up the city government’s official tango orchestra, a large ensemble that is legally charged with providing porteños with a season of free tango concerts. It is a large group, whose stylistic orientation draws the work of 1970s groups like the Salsoul Orchestra to mind, but tango. Again: always worth it!
This night, Garello had put together a sextet of bandoneón, piano, acoustic bass guitar, violin, flute and drum kit. That relatively unorthodox instrumentation alone—especially the snare-less, double tom-tom drum set—tells you exactly where the band is coming from: the so-called “modern” tango as made famous by Piazzolla. Despite this instrumentation, the band interestingly concentrated on more “classic” repertoire such as Triolo’s “Che bandoneón” and “Como dos extraños.” The latter was sung by guest singer Jesus Hidalgo, who looked like he could not be more than 18 years old, which, when placed alongside his septuagenarian band mates, made his low, husky voice look and sound almost uncanny. I also enjoyed the work of drummer Jose Maria Lavandera very much. Though having drums in tango can often come off as awkward, Lavandera, in the Piazzolla style, brought a surgical precision to his crashing tom-tom rolls and complex cymbal work.
As a whole the concert was very enjoyable, if not rousing. Hearing tango in this style reminds me of looking at high-modernist architecture, both being at once futuristic and old fashioned, relentlessly visionary and hopelessly dated. It was one of the few times here where I have been self consciously aware of being young. That feeling was only amplified by the environment of the Velma Café, a new venue that has become important in the local tango music scene following the abrupt closing of the Club del Vino last August. While the cool professionalism that the Velma Café strives for and largely achieves needs to be applauded, the venue as a whole feels like it could or even should be in a place like suburban Maryland. Since I am American, I of course could be criticized for taking the kind of “first worldliness” one can experience at the Velma Café for granted. That said, for me, the place, like the concert, was enjoyable if not rousing.