Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center both presented the music of Astor Piazzolla at events just days apart. It wasn’t such a remarkable coincidence. The great Argentinean creator of the tango nuevo is one of the most beloved composers of the 20th century. His music has been transcribed for countless instruments and configurations, and is performed frequently all over the world.
Last weekend the Neave Trio brought a taste of Piazzolla to New York City with a superb performance of his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires at David Geffen Hall.
This week, Jazz at Lincoln Center offered a broader view of the composer with a lively musical biography. That’s Not Tango: Astor Piazzolla, A Life in Music paired a dozen or so vivid pieces with a first-person recounting of Piazzolla’s life, with a fascinating focus on the peripatetic development of his signature style.
The music, played by a quartet led by pianist Brandt Fredriksen, is stunning. The narration, written by Lesley Karsten and Stephen Wadsworth (who directed) and read by Karsten, is engaging and informative. It would have been more gripping if read by an accomplished actor; Karsten’s readings were at thoughtful and, at their best, soulful, but also sometimes self-consciously slow and overly drawn-out.
Nonetheless she effectively transported us to New York City’s Lower East Side, where the Argentine-born Piazzolla spent most of his childhood; his youthful immersion in the tango scene back in his native country; his musical studies in Europe; his discovery, with an assist from the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, of his true musical voice; and his troubled personal life, with wife and children always playing second bandoneón to his muse.
The four musicians were superb both individually and as an ensemble: rhythmically tight but loose in spirit, virtuosic and emotive. In addition to his mastery of nuevo tango‘s lush techniques, Fredriksen showed off his classical mastery with snatches of music by composers who influenced Piazzolla: Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Bartók.
As Karsten delivered a fractured monologue imagined as the composer’s reflections from the afterlife, JP Jofre embodied Piazzolla the musician with his expressive skill on the bandoneón. This type of concertina is characteristic of Argentinean tango music and the instrument the composer himself played in his bands. Jofre’s tone is colorful, his technique exquisite, and he’s a magnetic performer, fun to watch.
Argentine-born bassist Pablo Aslan, a longtime champion and interpreter of nuevo tango himself, and Argentine-American violinist Nick Danielson, whose solo and duo albums focus on tango, completed the quartet. The result was just about as ideal a Piazzolla ensemble as one could hope for.
The selections included “La Muerte del Ángel,” “Resurrección del Ángel,” and a so-beautiful-it-hurts “Milonga del Ángel.” (So many angels, one could imagine seeing them through the Appel Room’s glass wall over the Manhattan streets.) Also on the program: “Soledad,” the brilliant “Fuga y Misterio,” a wild reckoning with “Tres Minutos con la Realidad,” and the heart-rending “Adiós Nonino” which featured a sparkling solo from Fredriksen.
Astor Piazzolla is said to have written some 3,500 pieces of music. It’s no wonder musicians and ensembles of every kind keep re-conceiving and recording them, and it’s no wonder one can keep discovering new ones. Born in Argentina, educated in Europe, he was a citizen of the world if ever there was one. But New York City can fairly claim a piece of him. Lincoln Center has helped make that clear this summer.
That’s Not Tango was performed July 30 and 31 in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.