Monday, January 07, 2008


Julio Pane, Instantáneas (EPSA Music) 2007.

Let’s start with the instrument itself. The bandoneón is a button squeezebox instrument of German origin originally designed to stand in for the pipe organ in poor Lutheran churches. With a range covering more than five octaves—from a rumbling low register to a rich but piercing high end—it is well suited to the task, though I doubt Bach chorales are the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind when hearing the instrument these days. Usually played sitting down, with the bellows resting on the lap, the bandoneón has 71 buttons distributed between left and right hand keyboards. Unlike the more familiar accordion, where the buttons sound whole chords, here each button sounds a single note. Or, rather, two single notes: one when the bellow is moved outwards and another when it is pushed inwards. That discrepancy effectively doubles the instrument’s number of keyboards to four, the complexity of which is compounded even further by the seeming randomness of the arrangement of pitches, which is different for the left and right hand. Like the layout of letters in the QWERTY keyboard, there must be some reasoned story as to how and why the pitches on the bandoneón ended up where they are, but it is by no means self-evident. A good image for playing the bandoneón, then, is like having four computer keyboards, two for each hand, one going in, one going out, that you have to play simultaneously—without looking—and with musicality. And you thought learning piano was hard!

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.

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