Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 22, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

To casual music fans, the tango is little more than the stuff of movie melodrama. It's Rudolph Valentino making choreographed love to a pliant seqorita. It's Al Pacino as a bitter blind man in "Scent of a Woman," seducing a stranger on the dance floor.

But these are to tango what Kenny G is to jazz. Like jazz, the tango has disreputable origins, first finding a home in the bordellos of 19th-century Buenos Aires. What began as a dance for two male pimps quickly became the music of Argentina's immigrant class, mostly porteqos (port workers) from Italy and Spain.

If tango has a Duke Ellington, it would be Astor Piazzolla, the Argentina-born master who reinvented the form as tango nuevo in the '40s and '50s. A classically trained musician who fell in love with jazz while growing up in New York, Piazzolla exploded every convention. Instead of whorehouses or dance clubs, he was determined to bring tango to the concert hall. Instead of a large orchestra fronted by a vocalist, he preferred to lead his own all-instrumental quintet, playing the bandoneon (a large, boxy accordion) with the mastery of a chamber musician and the passion of a spurned lover. Rather than play for the feet, Piazzolla was fond of saying, he made music for the head. Also the heart. In Piazzolla's hands, the tango could be many things: sad, angry, romantic, violent and unashamedly sentimental. By the time of his death in 1992, he had peformed everywhere from Tokyo to Berlin, and he left behind a large body of recorded work, of which three dozen albums are still in print.

It's fitting that Piazzolla, a child of Argentina but citizen of the world, has influenced classical and jazz musicians on several continents. Two of those he inspired, Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and American guitarist Al DiMeola, have recently released tributes to him. Of the two, Kremer's "Hommage a Piazzolla" is the more consistently faithful testament. Kremer may have traded the electric guitar of Piazzolla's Quinteto for a clarinet, but otherwise the primary instruments are the same: bandoneon, violin, piano and double bass.

With the exception of Per Arne Glorvigen on bandoneon, Kremer's collaborators sound like conservatory-trained Slavs, so it's no surprise that they interpret Piazzolla's more lyrical compositions, such as "Oblivion" and "Celos," with subtlety and grace. But they're also not afraid to tackle his more modern, dissonant work. While not as wild or unpredictable as Piazzolla, Kremer is no formalist prig, proving it most convincingly on the harsh but exhilarating "Buenos Aires hora cero." All 10 of the interpretations hold up well, even if the title track, a tribute written by Jerzy Peterburshsky, is jarringly sprite and slightly out of character. I actually prefer Kremer's restrained version of "Escualo" to the mid-'70s recording of the piece by Piazzolla. With its overamplified bass and exhibitionist drumming, Piazzolla's "Escualo" sounds uncharacteristically square, as if he's trying to keep pace with jazz-fusion hipsters of the time.

Like all great artists, Piazzolla wasn't afraid of risks or controversy. In fact, his life was actually threatened many times by tradition-bound tango purists who felt he was destroying, rather than reinvigorating, the form. Over the years, Piazzolla befriended and experimented with several American jazz musicians, including Gerry Mulligan, Gary Burton and Al DiMeola. Though DiMeola and Piazzolla never played together, they became close friends after meeting in Japan and discovering that both their families originated in the Italian town of Napoli.

While Piazzolla's work ultimately silenced his critics, the New Jersey-based DiMeola has struggled until recently for respect. A hotshot guitarist who helped pioneer '70s jazz-fusion with Chick Corea's "Return to Forever," DiMeola has been accused of bastardizing jazz and favoring speed-freak technique over soul. His critics haven't always been right, but DiMeola's antagonistic response has also produced mediocre albums with juvenile titles like 1991's "Kiss My Axe."

Instead of suit-and-tie formalism or putrid pop-jazz, DiMeola has spent much of the '90s fusing jazz and Latin American music with his World Sinfonia, and lately he's been winning praise for his more restrained, expressive playing . True to its title, however, DiMeola Plays Piazzolla is less the work of an understated interpreter than a sometimes brash, sometimes sympathetic reworking of Piazzolla. With the exception of two newly recorded tracks, it's really a compilation of work taken from previous World Sinfonia albums. DiMeola clearly knows and loves Piazzolla's music, and he can play it fairly straight, as on "Cafe 1930" and "Tango Suite Part I." His version of "Milonga del Angel" is even more spare than Kremer's, just four minutes of beautifully played solo guitar.

There's plenty of flash here, but for the most part it doesn't feel gratuitous. One of the boldest experiments  adding Andean pipe, vocal effects, and programmed percussion to "Verano Reflections"  works surprisingly well. Piazzolla and DiMeola would both hate to hear it, but the song would sound terrific blaring over the sound system at a dance club. The one time DiMeola seems more in service to his ego than the music is the album's opening track, "Oblivion." Almost unrecognizable from Kremer's stately version, it is six minutes of Di Meola as one-man band. With overlapping guitars, percussion and synthetic orchestration, the result is sleek and stylish, but ultimately it feels hollow. Evidence that it's more a marvel of high technology than steep emotion can be found in the album credits: Though DiMeola played every instrument himself, he needed two producers, two engineers and one programmer to stitch it together without seams. Piazzolla was supernaturally gifted, but he was also fatally human. He was sometimes proud and sometimes ashamed of this, but  unlike his friend and disciple DiMeola  he was never afraid to admit it.

By Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

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