Astor Piazzolla

Real name: Piazzolla, Astor Pantaleón
Bandoneonist, leader, composer and arranger
(11 March 1921 - 4 July 1992)
Place of birth:
Mar del Plata (Buenos Aires) Argentina
Julio Nudler

iazzolla is, not only the most renowned tango musician in the world but also, a composer chosen by internationally noted concert players, chamber groups, and symphonic orchestras. Possibly, he has driven tango beyond its bounds, so far —aesthetically speaking— that many tango players lacked the level either to go along with his trend or to understand it. Those who did follow him and those who came later, were faced with the heavy burden of solving how to stay away, even though partially, from his influence and to find a new path after his work. Post-piazzollism is up to date a collection of attempts, some of them important but insufficient.

His appearance in the Buenos Aires tango environment started in 1938, precisely at the time when tango was fastly awakening out of its relative lethargy which had commenced around 1930. Astor Piazzolla's relationship with that environment was difficult, a mixture of love and despise, admiration and resentment. But his struggle, which was that of an artist so gifted as innovative, against mediocrity and conservatism, took place within tango, deeply rooted in it, playing in others' or own orchestras on café stages or in dark suburban clubs. Post- Piazzollans no longer wear this mud on their shoes.

In spite of this rootedness and the deep tango essence in all what Astor did, even when playing another kind of music, since mid- 50s an allegedly disqualifying pet phrase spread among his detractors : «Piazzolla is not tango», as an absolute expression of quietism and intolerance. Nonwithstanding this antagonism, various tangos were written in his homage, one of them by Julio De Caroa, a significant figure in the genre, as testimony of admiration aroused by that rough and fighting individual, who challenged all standards.

Astor Pantaleón was born in 1921 in Mar del Plata, when that fishing port in the Atlantic ocean, 420 kilometers south from Buenos Aires, was at the same time an aristocratic sea resort, not yet so popular. In 1924 he and his parents moved to New York, where in 1929 his encounter with the bandoneon took place. In 1932 he composed his first tango, “La catinga”, never issued, and as an infantile actor was included in El día que me quieras, a film which starred Carlos Gardel.

Back home in Mar del Plata, in 1936 he began to take part in local groups and even lead one which was molded upon Vardaro´s Sextet style, which since 1933 onwards had attempted a daring improvement in style, but disregarded by recording companies. Its leader, the violinist Elvino Vardaro, would play many years later with Piazzolla.

In 1938, he arrived in Buenos Aires, where after brief stays in various orchestras, he was incorporated to the bandoneonist Aníbal Troilo's, which had been assembled in 1937 and had played a major role in the tango boom in the next two decades. Besides playing in the bandoneon section, Astor was arranger and occasional pianist, in hasty replacements for Orlando Goñi (or Gogni), a musician as brilliant as irresponsible.

Troilo tutored Piazzolla, but also trimmed his wings to keep him within the confines of his style which ought not to go beyond the people´s listening capacity.

Astor´s innovative drive began to be displayed in 1944, when he left Troilo to lead the orchestra which should provide musical accompaniment for the singer Francisco Fiorentino. That was the extraordinary association of an enormously popular vocalist and a unique talented musician. This partnership produced 24 recorded numbers, with outstanding renditions (the tangos “Nos encontramos al pasar”, “Viejo ciego” and “Volvió una noche”, among others). The series include the first two instrumentals recorded by Piazzolla: the tangos “La chiflada” and “Color de rosa”.

After that opening experience, Astor launched his own orchestra in 1946, still restricted by the traditional standards of the genre. As such, he positioned himself since the beginning amongst the most elaborate orchestras, along with those of Horacio Salgán, Francini-Pontier, Osvaldo Pugliese, Alfredo Gobbi and even Troilo. Among his singers Aldo Campoamor stood out. Until 1948 he recorded an output of 30 numbers, among them there are anthological renditions of tangos such as “Taconeando”, “Inspiración”, “Tierra querida”, “La rayuela” or “El recodo”. Among these recordings we highlight five works by Piazzolla himself, which already announce —particularly in the cases of “Pigmalión” and “Villeguita”— the genial composer.

Very soon the latter entered the scene with all his deep commitment and originality with tangos of unparalleled inspiration: “Para lucirse”, “Prepárense”, “Contratiempo”, “Triunfal”, “Contratiempo” and “Lo que vendrá”. These numbers are included in the repertories of leading orchestras, such as Troilo, Francini-Pontier, Osvaldo Fresedo and José Basso, most times with arrangements written by Piazzolla himself. Meanwhile, his orchestra recorded between 1950 and 1951 four pieces, two of them on a remarkable 78 r.p.m. disc: the old tangos “Triste” and “Chiqué”.

In the early 50s Piazzolla hesitated between the bandoneon and the piano, and thought of devoting to classical music on which he had been working as composer. With those ideas in mind he moved to France in 1954, having won a scholarship granted by the Paris Conservatory, but the musicologist Nadia Boulanger persuaded him to develop his art starting from what was more his own: tango and bandoneon. He recorded there in 1955, with the strings of the Paris Opera Orchestra, Martial Solal on piano and Piazzolla himself on bandoneon, 16 numbers, all his but two. That was a waterfall of amazing melody construction, with tangos such as “Nonino” (antecedent of the famous “Adiós, Nonino”, a touching farewell on his father´s death), “Marrón y azul”, “Chau, París”, “Bandó”, “Picasso” and others.

Back in Argentina, Piazzolla would walk in two directions. On one side, the scores for string orchestra and bandoneon, with which he brought forward a new breed of tangos of his own, in an already breaking attitude, such as “Tres minutos con la realidad”, “Tango del ángel” and “Melancólico Buenos Aires”. By then his repertory also included the revamping of traditional tangos and other tangos, by different musicians in a more dated trend, such as “Negracha” (Pugliese), “Del bajo fondo” (José Tarantino and Osvaldo Tarantino) or “Vanguardista” (José Bragato). The orchestra also included the singer Jorge Sobral, because Astor wanted to include the tango with lyrics in his innovative proposal.

The other major enterprise put through by Piazzolla at that time was the creation of the Octeto Buenos Aires, by assembling players of the highest level and with which he subverted all what was known in tango until then. Some people regard that octet as the artistic zenyth of all his career. That group which recorded only two ten-inch LPs was devoted, above all, to re-interpret great traditional tangos, such as “El Marne”, “Los mareados”, “Mi refugio” or “Arrabal”.

In 1958 Piazzolla settled in New York, where he lived very hard circumstances. Of that unhappy period is his jazz-tango experiment, which he himself criticized severely —maybe in excess— because of the commercial concession it implied. But when back in Buenos Aires in 1960 he put together another of the essential groups in his career: the Quinteto Nuevo Tango (bandoneon, piano, violin, electric guitar and double bass), which aroused a warm enthusiasm in certain types of public, among them, university audiences.

This setting, whose members were changing along time, dug a varied repertory, including new tangos by the leader, such as “Adiós, Nonino”, “Decarísimo”, “Calambre”, “Los poseídos”, “Introducción al ángel”, “Muerte del ángel”, “Revirado”, “Buenos Aires Hora 0” and “Fracanapa”, among others. With Héctor De Rosas´ voice he achieved outstanding renditions of “Milonga triste” and tangos such as “Cafetín de Buenos Aires”, “Maquillaje”, “Nostalgias” and “Cuesta abajo”, among others.

In 1963, he returned to a brief Nuevo Octeto, which did not achieve a level as high as the previous octet but it was the vehicle for the introduction of new timbres (flute, percussion, voice). Among the diverse realizations of those intensive years, two events happened in 1965 outstand. One is the concert performed by the Quintet at the Philharmonic Hall of New York, introducing the Series del diablo and the completed Series del ángel, besides “La mufa”. Furthermore he recorded in Buenos Aires a series of exceptional compositions of his after poems and texts by Jorge Luis Borges (about his mythology of knife fighters from the outskirts of town), with the singer Edmundo Rivero and the actor Luis Medina Castro. That year he introduced “Verano porteño”, the first of the very important tangos which would give form to the Cuatro estaciones (Four Seasons).

Later he started his production with the poet Horacio Ferrer, with whom he created the little opera María de Buenos Aires (which includes the wonderful “Fuga y misterio”) and a sequence of tangos. In 1969 they launched “Balada para un loco” and “Chiquilín de Bachín”, which all of a sudden brought to Piazzolla a massive success, to what he was not used to. That year he recorded them with his female singer Amelita Baltar and also with the singer Roberto Goyeneche.

In 1972, another good circumstance for Piazzolla, after having recorded the remarkable LP Concierto para quinteto the previous year, he assembled the Conjunto 9, with which he recorded Música contemporánea de la ciudad de Buenos Aires (Contemporary Music of the city of Buenos Aires) , as if going beyond the issue of tanguidad (tango essence). The albums recorded by that nonet include the outstanding “Tristezas de un Doble A”, “Vardarito” and “Onda nueve”. After leaving Argentina again, Astor commenced his fruitful Italian stage, where he, among other numbers, introduced “Balada para mi muerte”, with the female singer Milva, “Libertango” and the touching “Suite troileana”, composed in 1975 when shocked by the news of Troilo's death.

Three years later he composed and recorded with an orchestra a series of pieces in allusion to the World Soccer Championship, then held in Argentina, during the bloodthirsty military dictatorship established in 1976, which politically handled this tournament. It was a deplorable faux pas by Piazzolla.

In 1979, once again with his quintet, he introduced “Escualo”, among other numbers. Throughout those years and the ones to follow, Astor joined his talents to those of artists from different origins, such as George Moustaki (for whom he wrote the beautiful songs “Hacer esta canción” and “La memoria”), Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton. Among other varied performances, a magnificent recital by the quintet in 1987 in New York's Central Park was committed to record. The last Piazzolla´s setting was a sextet, which added a second bandoneon to the quintet and replaced the violin by the cello.

Besides concerto pieces and soundtracks for about 40 movies, Astor devised a great number of short pieces (whether tangos or not) omitted in this brief review. Among them, these are: “Juan Sebastián Arolas”, “Contrabajeando” (written with Troilo), “Tanguísimo”, “La calle 92”, “Oblivion”, “Años de soledad”, “Los pájaros perdidos”, “Lunfardo”, “Bailongo”, “Vuelvo al sur” and the series La Camorra.

To dive in Piazzolla's huge work, to find sheet music, scores and arrangements or devise new ones is the fascinating task of musicians all over the world today.