Piazzolla In Brooklin

Not only masterpieces spark new work. Piazzolla in Brooklyn, the new recording by Argentine-born, Brooklyn-based bassist, bandleader, and producer Pablo Aslan, was inspired by a dreadful album. Take Me Dancing, a 1959 jazz tango recording by New Tango master Astor Piazzolla, was dreadful. Piazzolla said so.

Recorded in Buenos Aires with a group of musically bilingual Argentine players, including Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla, the maestro´s grandson, on drums, Piazzolla in Brooklyn updates Takes Me Dancing into state-of-the-art jazz tango.

“I was attracted by the idea of recreating this damned Piazzolla album, through the optic of jazz tango, something that I had spent many years developing for myself,” he says. “I felt there were many places where the music could be opened up and developed further. I began to imagine which aspects of the pieces could use a more extended formal treatment, which ideas just went by too fast and could stand further elaboration, and where the solo sections could occur. That was the Eureka moment, when I realized that the material in this record had a potential that just needed to be unleashed.”

Aslan has been working on jazz tango for the past 20 years. He grew up in Buenos Aires in the 1960’s and 70’s, but moved to the United States to study music. After graduating from the University of California Santa Cruz, and attending Cal Arts, and UCLA, he headed to New York City in 1990. By then he had ediscovered tango and had become “the tango guy.” He played traditional gigs, for dancers.

For years he was a regular feature in milongas (tango dance halls) around the United States and in concert performances with Raul Jaurena, Pablo Ziegler, and Yo Yo Ma’s Soul of the Tango. But he also started to probe the possibilities of jazz tango.

Early on he formed a trio with the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin and pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus), “without really knowing what I was doing. I just formed this band,” he says. “ I put some charts together where everybody could solo and improvise. Interesting stuff would happen, but I couldn’t necessarily say that it was real tango, which is what I was trying to do.”

But the hard work paid off in recordings such as Avantango (2004), Buenos Aires Tango Standards (2007) and, most notably, Tango Grill (2009) an album that earned GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY nominations.

As he began planning the follow up to Tango Grill, Piazzolla’s Take Me Dancing was just a curiosity. “I had heard all the infamous stories about this recording, so when I saw Take Me Dancing in a record shop in Buenos Aires, I snatched a copy,” he recalls. “And it played exactly as I expected: it was awful. It was just as Piazzolla had presented it.” There was very little jazz and a simplified, clunky Piazzolla played to a guiro-and-bongo beat.

How much of this was due to artistic ideas, commercial considerations or some mix of both is open to discussion. In 1959, Piazzolla was back in New York, where he had spent most of his childhood, looking for a
fresh new start for a sputtering career. Take Me Dancing was his most ambitious gambit. It was a recording of originals and standards interpreted, by an ad-hoc Jazz Tango Quintet, comprising electric, guitar, vibes, piano and bass, plus small percussion. (One of the percussionists was Dominican bandleader, musician, and producer Johnny Pacheco, who would go on to develop salsa and co-found the influential Fania Records.)
Piazzolla had high hopes for the record — but it sank without a trace.

Artistic experiment or commercial ploy, at the time Piazzolla thought of Take Me Dancing as “marvelous.” For the rest of his life, he denounced it as “an artistic sin” and worse. But when Aslan read a critical reevaluation of Piazzolla’s career (Diego Fischerman and Abel Gilbert’s study Piazzolla El Mal Entendido, Piazzolla The Misunderstood) and the comments about Take Me Dancing he was intrigued into giving it a second listening. “And I really liked what I heard,” sounding still surprised. “In a way, it sounded to me like it was undiscovered Piazzolla. The rhythmic approach obscured the writing. The themes and ideas were actually very strong and original, but the percussion made it sound monotonous. And while this was called a jazz tango album, frankly there is virtually no improvisation in it, and what improvisation there is, it occurs in some isolated moments, generally against a written out background, and very briefly.”

What Aslan also heard in Take Me Dancing was a challenge and an opportunity. He went back to Buenos Aires and called on Gustavo Bergalli, trumpet, Nicolas Enrich, bandoneón, Abel Rogantini, piano, and “Pipi” Piazzolla, drums, players as knowledgeable and comfortable with the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythms of tango as they are with jazz.

“I needed these players for a recording like this,” explains Aslan. “Piazzolla in Brooklyn is about taking chances, dynamics, interaction, spontaneity, even some messiness,” he says. “It’s a personal view, and it’s spontaneous, created by the musicians in the moment.”

The transcriptions by Aslan, Enrich, and Rogantini of the original arrangements by Piazzolla for nine of the pieces in Take Me Dancing became the road map for Piazzolla in Brooklyn. “La Calle 92,” which opens the record like a scene setter, is the only track here that is not from Take Me Dancing. It’s a piece by Piazzolla titled after the New York City street where he and his family lived during this period.
Two of the tracks are jazz standards, “Laura,” and George Shearing’s classic “Lullaby of Birdland.” The rest of the pieces are a mix of original compositions that would never become part of Piazzolla’s repertoire, older songs in a new guise and also hints at the Piazzolla to come. “Counterpoint,” with its fugal structure, later developed fully in pieces such as “Fuga y Misterio;” “Dedita,” a piece written for his then-wife Odette ‘Dedé’ Wolff; “Show Off,” a new spin of “Para Lucirse,” a tango he had already arranged for tango master Anibal Troilo’s orchestra. And then there’s “Triunfal,” the piece that, in Piazzolla’s lore, he showed to fabled teacher Nadia Boulanger who then, impressed, encouraged him to continue writing tangos. Ironically, Aslan points out, the piece here becomes “almost hard bop.”

“I did not set out to re-harmonize or change his writing at all, or to add any of my ideas,” he explains. “That was a self-imposed limitation — but also I did not need to. The objective was to reformulate the arrangements so that the individual contributions of each musician were allowed to flourish.”

For Aslan, Piazzolla in Brooklyn was a chance to finally address Piazzolla in his own terms. “He was a model and an inspiration for my work,” he says. “But I also systematically avoided his music. I always felt that it was too strong and defined, and that his own interpretations very rarely have been surpassed. In Piazzolla In Brooklyn I found my own way into Piazzolla’s music, a place where I could create my own world and actually interact with him.”