Music News

María Susana Azzi and Simon Collier

Historically the tango has been at least as resistant to change as church music -- odd, given that the former was born in the whorehouses of Argentina, the one place you'd think anything goes. But when Astor Piazzolla dared to tweak the rigid dance music's format in the 1960s, he encountered death threats, cab drivers refusing him rides, and a fistfight with a well-known conservative tango singer.

His crimes? He incorporated American jazz and European classical idioms into the half-century­old tango style, irreverently increased the number of musicians from a quartet to an octet, and introduced new instruments and sounds to the mix. He also dropped the reverential break between movements, intentionally turned the tango from dance music into chamber music by complicating the form, and God help us, played while standing, rather than sitting, with one foot on the chair. That these changes would catapult his music into the realm of the avant-garde proves to what extent the tango had been held sacred. In this new biography, one associate refers to him as "little Lucifer"; another suggests Satan with a Bandoneon (a small accordion) as a title for this book.

Fortunately the engrossing Le Grand Tango is void of perfunctory, dry, childhood-era prefacing: Following his birth Piazzolla is yanked from Argentina into the musical environments and influences of New York City and Paris. Readers even slightly familiar with Piazzolla's outlaw status will immediately anticipate the tradition hitting the fan as the young bandoneonist works his way back to Buenos Aires. A mere 50 pages into this 300-page book, both the reader and Piazzolla are well in the thick of things.

Authors Azzi and Collier, the former a board member of both the Astor Piazzolla Foundation and the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires, steer us through the lengthy gauntlet of musical, religious, political, and family figures with whom Piazzolla clashed during his 70 years. Piazzolla becomes the personification of the tango, the ultimate expression of passion: We're told how he once confronted his singer's wealthy rancher husband and boldly insisted on divorce so that he could marry her -- an incident that made headlines in Argentina's tabloids. Piazzolla courting trouble nearly becomes a theme of the book, with him often becoming outright gleeful when his work incites indignation and poor reviews.

Le Grand Tango builds on an unusual world. The Argentine culture is unfamiliar to most of us, its embrace of tradition is appallingly extreme, and the minimal influence of the tango on stateside music keeps Piazzolla's artistic struggles a foreign battle. All of these make the era and art scene against which Piazzolla rebelled as intriguing as the rebel himself.

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Dave McElfresh