copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin
Paris: Current French jazz is a study in cultural diversity. The Gypsy guitarist Birelli Lagrene is having increasing success on both sides of the Atlantic reviving Django Reinhardt's musette jazz. The astounding young and fast rising flutist Magic Malik, who recalls Raahsan Roland Kirk, is of North African ancestry. And accordionist Richard Galliano is updating Astor Piazzolla's Argentine tangos.
Galliano's string septet "Piazzolla Forever" packed the club Le Petit Journal in Montparnasse for two nights last month, and it will appear in Nice, Umbria, Montreux and other major European festivals this summer. The group's eponymous album, recorded live in Willisau, Switzerland, has been released on the Dreyfus label.
Sometimes called "the Argentine Villa Lobos," Astor Piazzolla came to believe that classical tango was "very poor musically," and that there was "no rhythmical variety." He revolutionized it by adding European forms, tone-clusters, jazz harmonies, rock rhythms and electric guitars. It was too in-your-face for most Argentines, and the Buenos Aires press called him a "clown" and a "degenerate bum."
"Argentina is a strange country," Piazzolla once said. "You could change anything -- the law, the money, 20,000 presidents. Just don't change the tango. Argentines live and they die for the tango. Ask them who Bach, Picasso, or John Coltrane was and they don't know. The tango world is drinking, drugs, prostitutes, cops, gigolos, thieves -- idiots. I hated that business. I found another way."
Piazzolla said he was a "hero in every country but my own." When Richard Galliano toured Argentina last year with the clarinetist Michel Portal: "We concluded our program with Astor's 'Libertango.' The musicians were cold to us. The tango is theirs. And they did not consider Piazzolla's tangos to be in the true tradition."
In the 1950s, Piazzolla was learning how to compose "serious" music with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He longed to be a "serious" composer. He came from a poor family and his mother had paid for his early music lessons by cooking pasta for the teacher. According to Galliano: "He always had an inferiority complex about the music he was making not being 'serious' enough." A similar sense of inferiority led Charlie Parker to record with strings. Boulanger looked at a score Piazzolla submitted and said she could see the influence of Stravinsky and Bartok. But, she asked: "Where is Piazzolla?" He had been embarrassed to play his tangos on the bandoneon, the Argentine cousin of the accordion, for Boulanger. When he finally did, she said: "That's Piazzolla."
He returned to Buenos Aires and, working in dives, created a new language that came to be called the "new tango." The form was short, synchronized with emerging recording technology, and it was -- along with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus -- "popular" music in the best definition of the word; accessible to anyone who took the trouble to listen. It can bring tears to your eyes. It can make you dance. The late Atlantic and Warner Bros. Records executive and respected jazz producer Nesuhi Ertegun called Piazzolla "one of the major composers of our time."
The handsome, sincere, courtly Richard Galliano is an exception to Mark Twain's definition of a gentleman: "Someone who can play the accordion but doesn't." What Twain really meant was that the accordion is a working-class instrument. Galliano has had two hernia operations from lugging the klutzy, proletarian squeeze-box around. He won a competition at the age of 12 and accompanied and arranged for the chansonier Claude Nougaro for seven years before coming to jazz, playing with, among others, Chet Baker, Jimmy Gourley, Steve Potts and Ron Carter.
One thing he likes about playing jazz on the accordion is that there are no father-figures. There is no temptation to copy anybody. Born in Cannes in 1950, Galliano is at the center of an accordion revival in France. His 1996 album "New York Tango" (also on Dreyfus) features Lagrene on guitar and the splendid George Mraz, bass, and Al Foster, drums. It links Piazzola ("the new tango") to Django Reinhardt ("the new musette") by way of Jaco Pastorius.
In the years prior to Piazzolla's death on July 4th, 1992, Galliano worked with, occasionally subbed for (Piazzolla was terminally ill) and became personally close to him. They were both of Italian extraction and living in France, and they played the same instrument.
Galliano has been "living with Astor's arrangements and compositions ever since. I can hear other influences -- Italian folk music, Stravinsky, Satie; and it is clear how much he loved Gil Evans. But no matter what, at the core of his music there is always the tango. "For me it's more than an homage. It's more than nostalgia. I want to keep his music alive. It has something to do with true values."
Mike Zwerin originally published this piece in the International Herald Tribune.
C o m m e n t s
PIAZZOLLA 1 of 2 Eduardo Hojman July 23, 03
The article, while somewhat accurate, fails to explain that the time when Piazzolla was considered a clown and his music "not tango" is dead and buried a long time ago. In fact, the traditional tango is also dead and buried, only heard by our grandparents or played for tourists at dubious caves. This flaw, unfortunately, is characteristic of most foreign writers about Argentina. And if Galliano's version of Libertango was coldly received in Argentina, it must have been due to some chauvinistic attitude on the Argentine musicians, who think no one from abroad can play tango, but I very much doubt they were questioning Piazzolla status as a true tango composer.