Tango For Ears

Musical Seduction

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Tango For Ears

Jazz Tangos
Tango has obvious affinities with jazz. Both use African-derived rhythms, both grew out of dance music, both arose from oppressed urban classes, both convey vivid emotions (defiance, arrogance, joyous release, fury), both are, in their most primal forms, played by small bands of mixed instruments that (at first) entertained mostly in shady urban saloons and bordellos. Both were met with early disapproval from the sanctimonious and were soon taken up by the smart set. Both have mutated into multiplicitous strands; both have been hugely influential on many other kinds of music; and both have achieved a lasting place in our culture, musical and otherwise.


As we saw in the previous section, tangos from the 40s and 50s were quickly picked up and recorded by jazz performers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. This pattern has continued, and jazz renditions of tangos have been played and recorded ever since, some as instrumentals (as for example the amiable two-guitar collaboration of Laurindo Almeida and Charlie Byrd on their 1985 Concord album Tango that includes such standbys as “Blue Tango,” “Jalousie,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” along with several classic Argentinian tangos), and some by singers (as in the smoldering take on “Whatever Lola Wants” by singer Tierney Sutton on her 2009 Telarc release, Desire). At the other end of the spectrum is Frank Zappa and company’s likeably game run-through of the much-loved 1955 Finnish tango “Satumaa” (with abjectly wishful lyrics about a heavenly never-never-land) recorded on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 2 from his 1974 concert in Helsinki. Quavery soulful guitar solos and clavinet riffs start sweetly, build into fusion-style climaxes, and still the tango beat goes on.


But jazz musicians not only performed tangos, they also began to write them—as jazz compositions in and of themselves, not simply jazz versions of existing tangos. One of the first to do so was Richard Twardzik, whose “Yellow Tango” came out on his 1954 Pacific Jazz album Trio. What’s remarkable about this bouncy number is Twardzik’s unbuttoned, inventive, Thelonious Monkish piano playing; it pushes at the edge for its time yet remains both genuine jazz and a recognizable tango. Twardzik died at only 25 of a heroin overdose and so never became widely known; Gil Evans, on the other hand, was celebrated for his distinctive and imaginative brass-heavy ensemble arrangements and collaborations with Miles Davis. His darkly sonorous “Las Vegas Tango” came out in 1964 on Verve’s aptly-named The Individualism of Gil Evans. This number is a sizzler, with the unhurried, majestic power and deep crimson glow of molten lava. (For another—and terrific—version of the piece, check out the new Cuneiform recording by guitarist Bill Frisell with a big band led by Michael Gibbs; it’s reviewed in this issue by Bill Milkowski.)

Also prepossessing, if in a very different way, with notably idiosyncratic brass, crafty electric guitar licks, and a marvelously incongruous Hammond B-3, is Carla Bley’s 14-minute “Reactionary Tango” from her 1987 ECM release Social Studies. Underlined by an obsessively drumming tango-rhythm tattoo, this has a sort of mock-martial arrogance carried by a cleverly addictive melodic line set to tangy Kurt Weillish harmonies—and some hilarious interpolated quotations from “Hernando’s Hideway” (themselves stolen from an early traditional Argentinian tango).

Not to be outdone by his ex-spouse, Paul Bley (with trio-mates Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Swallow) offers another eccentric entry, “Tango Del Mar,” on his 1989 The Life of a Trio: Sunday. Spare, wistful, introspective, chromatically wandering, this tango is a slow dance, more like the pensive epilogue than the steamy prelude to a romance. The long-spun-out entwining lines of Bley’s piano, Giuffre’s sax and clarinet, and Swallow’s electric guitar seem to call up from the cloudy depths of memory a piercing image of the sweetness of a love forever lost, as a photographic image emerges from alchemical waters to condense the vaguest blur into a sharply-etched face from which shines the beloved smile and dancing eyes that once so delighted.

One of the biggest names in jazz to write his own tango is Dave Brubeck, whose 1995 Telarc release Young Tigers and Old Lions sports “Joe Lovano’s Tango,” a winsome four-minute modal-jazz (and quite danceable) charmer that the 75-year-old Brubeck dashed off on the way to the recording studio. Lovano turns in a mellow tenor sax solo complemented by Dave’s deft follow-up piano commentary; Telarc captures both in pristine sonics. More ambitious and rhythmically trickier but with lots of uplift and foot-tapping drive is Jack DeJohnette’s “Tango African,” which leads off his 2009 collaboration with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci on Music We Are. This is an interesting and unusual piece, with DeJohnette playing drums and overdubbing solos on melodica (a sort of cross between a harmonica and an accordion that sounds similar to the bandoneón used in traditional tango bands). 

Musicians that specialize in playing jazz tangos (in performances with lots of the improvisation so essential to traditional jazz) have proliferated in the last decade, many of them now issuing excellent recordings. Typically they play a wide-ranging repertoire that includes arrangements of older Argentine tangos, Piazzolla-style Nuevo Tangos (almost always at least one or two by the master himself), and newly-written jazz tangos. Indeed to describe the current jazz-tango scene as thriving is to understate; “efflorescing” might be more accurate. Some comments on a few of the more notable currently active jazz-tango musicians may help readers interested in exploring this territory get started. (More will be mentioned in the following section.)

Pianist Pablo Ziegler (born 1944) played with Piazzolla for many years and has continued to perform as a soloist with orchestra, and in a variety of group settings. Among the many well-known musicians he’s collaborated with are Emmanuel Ax, Gary Burton, Regina Carter, Paquito D’Rivera, Joe Lovano, and Branford Marsalis, and he’s as likely to be playing alongside a vibraphonist or cellist as with the more traditional bandoneón and string bass players. The numbers on his 2003 Grammy-winning album Baja Cero with Quique Sinesi encompass a wide expressive range, from sinister, dissonant tone-clusters to ethereal lyricisim. The Pablo Ziegler Quartet’s 2007 Tango & All That Jazz includes one of this superlative musician’s many amazing performances of Piazzolla’s dazzling “Fuga Y Misterio”—a thrilling composition that persuasively synthesizes devices and techniques from tango, jazz, and classical music.

Also far-ranging in musical aesthetic but consistently alluring in both melodic inspiration and rhythmic impulse, the jazz tangos of saxophonist Jorge Retamoza as heard on his marvelous 2010 Vientos De Tango and in concerts (now on YouTube) with the Cuarteto Andorra are brimful of verve and spontaneity. Another YouTube discovery (this one not yet on any CD that I could find) is the aptly-named Tango Jazz Quartet, four young musicians playing less exploratory but very pleasing jazz tangos with slinky tunes and comfortably danceable beats (their YouTube page is tangojazzquartet). There’s no bandoneón in sight; here the melodic lines are taken by clarinet, saxophone, and piano. These guys are definitely keeping the “tang” (and the “go”) in tango; their music is hummable and audience-friendly in a way that recalls some of Dave Brubeck’s and Stan Getz’s more uptempo releases from the 1960s.