In a nod to an Argentine musician who revolutionized the genre-not without sometimes fierce resistance-it's often said that there are two types of tango: before and after Piazzolla. The Argentine's music found inspiration in the traditional tango of his homeland, but infused it with highly contemporary harmonies, a sustained rhythm, and inventive writing that is seductive, warm and superbly eloquent. His bandoneón solos are masterpieces that draw from jazz as well as a mysterious and abidingly Latin musical vocabulary.
Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1921, Astor Piazzolla moved to New York with his family at age four. When Astor was eight, his father gave him a bandoneón. The boy was disappointed: he'd had his heart set on a saxophone.
His disappointment, however, was short-lived: By the age of nine, the young Piazzolla, already a master of the bandoneón, caught the attention of the great tango singer Carlos Gardel; on his passage through New York, the latter invited Piazzolla to play several themes from the film El dia que me quieras.
Piazzolla went on to pursue academic studies under Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninov, and on returning to Argentina he joined the Aníbal Troilo Orchestra. In 1941, he began studying under composer Alberto Ginastera, and six years later he formed his own instrumental group.
The orchestra survived three years, after which Piazzolla started anew. He gave up the bandoneón, turned his back on tango, and returned to classical music. His critically acclaimed 1954 piece, Sinfonietta, earned him a grant from the French government to study in Paris under the famous Nadia Boulanger, who told Piazzolla he should never abandon the tango.
Soon, an even greater challenge loomed. Piazzolla returned to Argentina with the firm intention to renew a genre he viewed as weighed down by a jealously guarded traditionalism. It was during this period that his music and bold treatment of established forms sparked controversy.
Piazzolla's reputation continued to grow, both in Argentina and abroad, and in 1963 he captured the coveted Hirsch Prize. He went on to compose Milonga en ré, followed by Tango 6 for the Melos Ensemble, and Tangazo (a play on words loosely translated as a "stroke of tango") for the Buenos Aires Ensemble.
As well as tour extensively throughout Europe and the U.S. in subsequent years, Piazzolla co-wrote a small opera with Horacio Ferrer titled Maria de Buenos Aires. His Balada para un loco ("Ballad for a Crazy Man") sealed his reputation as a popular composer at the first Canciôn Festival in Buenos Aires, and legendary recordings like the one he did with Gerry Mulligan began to take on historic value.
Astor Piazzolla spent the next few years in Europe, writing music for the stage and cinema (Lumière, by Jeanne Moreau), performing regularly with his quintet, and making recordings that would earn him a following as far as Quebec, which he did not visit until 1984.
That year, he took part in the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal for the first time. His influence, however, was already apparent in the growing interest in tango. Singer Pauline Julien, for one, had added to her repertoire a song based on music by Piazzolla.
Two years later, on the heels of a successful first visit, the Argentine returned to Montreal. This time, in keeping with his wishes, he performed with the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand-Montréal. In 1989, he performed at the Festival for a third and final time, accompanied by Nuevo Tango Sexteto.
The Piazzolla heritage
Tango: before and after Piazzolla! The great master of "Tango Nuevo," Astor Piazzolla caused quite a stir in La Boca, Buenos Aires in the 1950s, when he decided to marry tango with jazz. "Sacrilege!" descried the purists for whom tango was a religion. "Tango's got to swing!" came the reply from a man whose name is now synonymous with tango all across the world.
Toward the end of his life, Astor Piazzolla confided to a journalist that he'd been listening to tango since he was eight. The Argentine bandoneón master venerated this music and the musicians who performed it. "It's important to have your own style when creating," he would say. "Without style, there's no music." Piazzolla, for one, had a style all his own.