Few artists reach a level of recognition so high that their name is synonymous with a whole genre of music. In Astor Piazzolla’s case his name is not only the first that comes to mind when thinking about Tango as a musical genre, but for many his is the only name in that genre. Since the 1950s, when he was at the forefront of the Nuevo Tango movement that revolutionized traditional Argentinian music, he symbolized Tango to audiences around the world. His history is well documented so I will not repeat it here, but rather focus on the quintet he led between 1978 and 1989. That was his second ‘great’ quintet, modeled after the first quintet he formed in the 60s. The combination of Bandoneon, Double Bass, Electric Guitar, Piano and Violin gave Piazzolla the right amount of musicians and dynamic range to be able to stretch the genre and blend written orchestrated passages with group improvisations. The concept is not far from the Third Stream, a term coined in 1957 by composer Gunther Schuller in a lecture at Brandeis University to describe a musical genre that is a synthesis of classical music and jazz. The Third Stream influenced musicians such as Gil Evans, John Lewis and Miles Davis and led to the legendary recordings by Evans and Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Piazzolla was heavily influenced by these recordings when they came out in the 1950s and mixed these concepts with the traditional music he grew up with. A quintet was a perfect vehicle to deliver this musical vision, and the band he formed in 1978 performed a perfect blend of classical, jazz and Argentinian music.
Violin player Fernando Suárez Paz came from a classical background and played many of the soulful melodies Piazzolla wrote, as in Milonga Del Angel. His specialty was the ability to produce percussive effects, an essential part of the tango. These effects are called Yeites and each one is named after the sound it aims to produce, such as cicada, rain drop, broom, whip and siren. If you listen to Michelangelo ’70 from Tango: Zero Hour you will hear a whole gamut of these effects. Piazzolla used to write the names of the Yeites in his music sheets and was frustrated when he handed them to musicians outside the Tango realm who had no idea how to interpret them. When he worked with the Kronos quartet, a group of musicians as talented as they come, on the album Five Tango Sensations, he got so annoyed with their inability to produce these sounds that he called on Fernando Suárez Paz to join the sessions and explain the tricks in person.
Horacio Malvicino on electric guitar contributed the improvisational jazz aesthetic to Piazzolla’s compositions. You can hear a good example of that at the beginning of Mumuki from Tango: Zero Hour. For many years the most controversial aspect of the Nuevo Tango was the improvisational freedom given to each of the musicians, a concept completely foreign to the old tradition of the style.
Pianist Pablo Ziegler is a jazz virtuoso, a talent not missed by Piazzolla who gave the piano player many opportunities to showcase his abilities, for example the opening to Adios Nonino from the Central Park Concert. Ziegler provided not only the harmonic foundation for the quintet, but when the composition called for staccatos and heavy accents he used his whole body to add power, leveraging his back and arms to attack the keys.
Bass player Hector Console brought a new sense of rhythm to the group. Unlike previous bass players in Piazzolla’s ensembles who focused solely on providing a constant pulse to the music, Console was influenced by Jazz and added ornamentation to the bass lines, making the rhythm more fluid. His accompaniment in Milonga Del Angel is a fine example of how to provide the rhythmic part of a song while letting the music breath. Milonga is a rhythmic convention that within a set of 8 beats puts the accent of beats 1 ,4,5 and 7 (12345678). In Milonga Del Angel the accent on beat 7 is very subtle, adding more space to the end of the sequence thus making it less rigid.
Tango: Zero Hour was recorded in New York in 1986 while the group was on tour in North America, the first after 10 years of absence from the continent. While in the city Piazzolla had a chance to meet with Gil Evans who came to see the ensemble performing at the Public Theater. Tango: Zero Hour was produced by Kip Hanrahan who facilitated a number of great recordings in the New York avant-garde scene, blending jazz, rock and ethnic music. Piazzolla was very pleased with this album: “Tango: Zero Hour is the greatest record I’ve made in my entire life. This is the record I can give to my grandchildren and say, “this is what we did with our lives”.