Tango Expert Piazzolla in Step With Modern Times

Flash! Bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla has a new band. It’s called the New Tango Sextet.

Hot news, right? Excuse me, while I step aside to avoid the loud chorus of yawns.

Who, you may ask, is Astor Piazzolla? What is a bandoneon, and why should you care? Ah, good questions.

Consider this: Piazzolla is universally acknowledged as perhaps the world’s greatest tangoist. He is to the sensuous music of Argentina what Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were to jazz. In Piazzolla’s hands, the bandoneon (actually a button accordion) and the tango have become the starting points for compositions which transform a national dance music--a music which emerged from a blending of Cuban habanera, black candombe and Andalusian tango--into a rich and complex vehicle of contemporary expression.


Need more evidence? OK. Sting calls Piazzolla’s music: “Great to make love to if you can’t tango.” The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart says, “His sound makes your hair stand on end.” And Pat Metheny says that Piazzolla is one of his “favorite musicians of all time.”

Last year, the 67-year-old Piazzolla--whose Los Angeles debut takes place tonight at UCLA’s Royce Hall--made a few changes in his group. To tango aficionados, the modifications in an ensemble which had remained stable for 27 years were roughly equivalent to the startling departure of Johnny Hodges from the Ellington band in the early ‘50s.

Piazzolla’s explanation was typically direct and to-the-point. “I write for my musicians,” he said. “I’ve done it that way all my life. And after having composed music for the same group for 27 years--hundreds of pieces of music and arrangements and sound--I found myself against a wall. I wanted to do something different. So I changed two players--the violinist and the pianist.

“Instead of a violin, I added a cello, for a more dramatic sound. And I added a pianist who is a very important contemporary composer in his own right. When I write for him, I have new world of music available to me, sounds and knowledge.

“Finally, I added another bandoneon. Back in the ‘30s, when tango groups were first trying to do something different with the music, they used to make tango solos for two bandoneons. I want to create a comeback of that style and put new harmonies and rhythms with it. I’ve found out how to do that, and I’m having great fun with it.”

Born in Argentina, Piazzolla was brought to the United States when he was 2 years old, and grew up in the turbulent ethnic crosscurrents of New York’s Little Italy. “I learned everything there,” he said. “I got good beatings, I gave good beatings, and I learned to defend myself. I learned to have courage, and not to be afraid. When you study music, you can be the greatest musician in the world, but if you don’t have the courage to do what you want, to find your own individual style, then why did you bother to study music for so long?”

Piazzolla studied the bandoneon-- and there was no question that he did it with his own style. The instrument is the quintessential element in tango music, but Piazzolla’s New York years exposed him to Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Ellington, and very little tango. When he returned to Buenos Aires in the late ‘30s he was a hybrid artist--studying with the likes of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, composing classical pieces and film scores, and creating modern-sounding tangos which both outraged and fascinated the music’s purists.

Things haven’t changed much. Today, Piazzolla is just as determined to chart his own path. “I’m doing what I want. I always do,” he said. “But, look, I’m not a Julio Iglesias. I play none of the old repertoire--'La Cumparisita,’ pieces like that. God forbid. There are some stupid people who expect me to play things like that to get more applause, but I won’t do it; I’ll never sell my soul to the devil for applause--never. I’m not interested in being the richest man in the cemetery.

“I’m also not interested in what tango was. I’m interested in what it will be in the future. When the water doesn’t run, it rottens. And that happens with tango. Tango that doesn’t run--it rottens. I don’t like the smell of what’s rotten. I have a great respect for the old tango, for the primitive tango. But I must do it in my own way.

“When Gil Evans did a modern arrangement, you could always hear that it was jazz. The same thing applies to the tango in my music. The accentuation, the feeling, is like jazz--like the blues. You can’t explain what the feeling is, but you have it inside, because you’ve learned it since you were a kid.

“I’ve been listening to tango since I was a little boy, but it’s not as though each time I write a composition I say to myself, ‘Look, Astor, you have to put some tango in here.’ I don’t have to do that. Anything I write will have tango underneath it, always. I was raised in this music, I played it all my life, and I have it inside my veins.”