Libertango - Liner Notes
There is no equivalent person who played as central a role in jazz as Astor Piazzolla has in tango. Imagine that instead of numerous jazz giants such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Miles Davis, there was just one modern jazz hero who was both virtuoso performer and prolific composer. In the world of tango, Piazzolla was just such a unique figure. Straddling the worlds of classical music and of his own popular culture he made nearly one hundred recordings of original music released between 1945 and 1995. He was also the greatest bandoneon virtuoso to ever play the instrument. When I discovered Astor's music in 1965 I was just twenty two years old, and he was already the foremost tango musician in history.
Standing at the side of the stage in that Buenos Aires club thirty-five years ago, I was swept away by the passion of his soaring melodies and rich harmonies and the breathtaking virtuosity of his musicians. But even more surprising, I couldn't believe this music existed and it was so little known in the United States. Tango had been around since the turn of the century, experiencing the same growth patterns that jazz had in the USA: first came small combos, then the big tango orchestras (like big bands), and then by the 60s, both musics had moved into the concert halls. The more I learned, the more I realized that Piazzolla was as much a hero in his world as Ellington and Miles were in mine.
Tango is rare among music with folk origins. Usually, a country's national music remains simple in structure: the average person can sing it, play it, or dance to it. But tango, like jazz, brought together the considerably developed traditions of Western European music and local folk influences and evolved into a sophisticated art form requiring the highest levels of musicianship. I was immediately drawn to what I heard. For four nights I watched and listened as the Piazzolla Quintet held their audiences spellbound. At first I was overwhelmed and could only take in the incredible playing skills of the musicians and their tight-knit ensemble playing. But as I heard more I began to understand the compositions on a deeper level. I bought an armload of Piazzolla's records to take home so I could continue my tango education.
For the next twenty years I was an enthusiastic fan, listening for my own enjoyment and introducing Piazzolla's music to friends whenever I had the opportunity. I never expected to play tango myself; I mean, who could have imagined a jazz vibraphonist in a tango group? But in 1984, after I finished a concert with Chick Corea in Paris, Astor came up from the audience and asked me if I remembered him. We started reminiscing about the time we met before in Argentina. To my delight, he wanted to try writing for the vibraphone and suggested we try a project together.
We were both scheduled to be back in Argentina soon and I cautioned him not to begin writing until I had the chance to explain some vibraphone logistics to him. A lot of composers assume it's like writing for the piano, but there are many differences between playing with ten fingers and managing four mallets. Astor showed up at the Buenos Aires club I was playing and we sat down to talk. Excitedly, he said he'd already been able to hear all the music in his head and he had gone ahead and written everything! I was thrown into a panic. What if I couldn't play it? What if it had to be rewritten? What if I ended up not fitting in with his ensemble at all? After all, no one had put the vibes in tango before. Because we had already committed to an extensive concert tour and signed a record deal, it was too late to back out, and I had yet to see a note of the music. A few months later, Astor and his band made a brief stop in New York en route to Europe, and we arranged to meet and have a quick run through. It didn't go that well. Everyone was grappling with the complexities of the music. Astor was trying to explain to me how to phrase the melodies and how he wanted me to add improvisations. Because it was so different from jazz, I was really struggling. In jazz, the soloist typically develops a solo over several minutes and is used to having an extended time to create something meaningful. But Astor wanted intermittent improvisations of short duration, sometimes just a few seconds in length, somewhat like the ornamentation in Baroque music. I had to learn to shift smoothly back and forth between written parts and improvising, making sure to maintain continuity.
We gathered at a local school in Ravenna, Italy, to rehearse for a few days before our first concert. Astor didn't have a lot of patience for rehearsing. After only a couple of hours each day he would announce it was time to eat, and that would be it. He was supremely confident while I was worried that we would fall flat on our faces. In spite of my concerns, our first concert was a big success and things only got better as we continued to tour.
After every gig, Astor would take me aside and make suggestions, and gradually the other musicians began to offer their advice, too. I could feel everyone accepting me into the group and there was a general sense of relief that it was working out. Our fourth concert, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, was scheduled to be recorded and at first things didn't look too promising. We were last on a long program and didn't go on stage until after midnight. Not only were we tired, but we expected the audience to be totally saturated with music by that time. Honestly, I expected we would have to record everything again under better circumstances. Instead it turned out to be an inspiring night for us and the audience was right with us all the way. And when I heard the tapes a month later, I knew we had captured one of our best performances. After Montreux, we went on to tour more in Europe followed by concerts in Japan and a few dates in North America. But we never got around to performing in Argentina. My greatest hope had been to play someday with Astor in front of Argentina's very discerning tango fans. At first, Astor was opposed to this, saying that if he brought a jazz musician to play tango in Buenos Aires he would be lynched! But, after we'd finished touring and the record came out he changed his mind and was anxious to get some dates arranged. Unfortunately, before anything could be set up, he became seriously ill and failed to recover in spite of a year long convalescence. His passing was a great loss to all of his fans and all the musicians who worked with him during his career. I thought it meant the end of my tango experience too, but this turned out not to be the case.
Marcelo Morano, a leading concert impresario with whom I've done many tours in Argentina, suggested that I reunite Piazzolla's musicians and record more of Astor's music, which, in 1997, led to the making of our Concord CD Astor Piazzolla Reunion-A Tango Excursion (CCD-4793-2). After its release, we toured in Europe and South America and continued to add more Piazzolla works to our repertoire. Inevitably, I wanted to record the new pieces, adding this latest CD to my tango experience and continuing my tribute to Piazzolla's legacy.
I can't praise the brilliant musicians on this CD enough. They represent the best in tango, and as interpreters of Piazzolla's music, can't be matched. Guitarist Horacio Malvicino played with Astor oft and on for thirty years and is an established writer and arranger in his own right. His assistance in organizing the music and interpreting the original scores was invaluable. He always knows just which parts in Astor's compositions to assign to the vibraphone. Violinist Fernando Suarez-Paz and pianist Pablo Ziegler, also members of Astor's ensemble for many years, are two of the most dazzling soloists in contemporary tango. Bandoneonist Marcelo Nisinman was Astor's protege, and although he is not yet out of his twenties, is recognized as the leading master of Piazzolla's styles and technique.
Nisinman and pianist Nicolas Ledesma (who plays on four tracks) appear regularly in the official performing group of the Astor Piazzolla Foundation based in Buenos Aires. The behind-the-scenes hero of the group is Hector Console, the number one tango bassist for several decades. His inspired role at the bottom of the instrumentation guides the ensemble through the many changes of mood and tempo typical in tango.
For this project, we chose some of the pieces Astor created specially to showcase his star musicians: Escualo, written for Suarez-Paz, and Contrabajissimo, composed for Console. We also included three of Piazzolla's most well-known pieces- Libertango, Invierno Porteno, and Adios Nonino - featuring solos by pianists Pablo Ziegler and Nicolas Ledesma. And, of course, there are featured spots throughout for bandoneon and guitar as well as vibes. It is hard to express what my experience playing with Piazzolla and his musicians has meant to me. Decades ago when I was first captivated by their music, I never dreamed I would someday play with them. Now this music has become an essential part of my career. Playing tango has transformed my jazz playing. There is tremendous drama in Piazzolla's music which spills over into everything I do; his memorable melodies influence my improvisations and I've learned how to be more creative with tempos and use of space. I learned so much from him directly. I have continued to learn more from his enduring compositions and playing with the musicians who were there when the music was first created. Looking back to 1965, that chance meeting in Buenos Aires was a real lucky break.