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Nashville Scene Two to Tango

Vandy prof teams up with Argentine to write Piazzolla biography

By Ron Wynn

MAY 1, 2000:  Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla was one of those rare international music figures whose work obliterated issues of language, ethnic origin, and style--his music is right up there with that of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Mongo Santamaria. Sadly, Piazzolla labored in near-obscurity for much of his life and died tragically in 1992, just as his fame reached its zenith. Because Piazzolla did the bulk of his recording for international labels, his music didn't receive the type of widespread coverage or scrutiny it deserved.

Now that oversight has been partially corrected, thanks to the impending release of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla (Oxford), cowritten by Argentine author Mar'a Susana Azzi and Vanderbilt history professor Simon Collier. The first English-language biography of Piazzolla, the book blends narrative, anecdote, and musical analysis, offering a vivid portrait of this brilliant, flamboyant figure. Collier and Azzi interviewed more than 220 friends, family members, colleagues, and musicians, getting accounts and insights available only from those in Piazzolla's inner circle.

"Piazzolla wanted more than anything to make music for people to listen to rather than dance," Collier said in a recent interview at his Vanderbilt office. "He came from a dance music background, and he could play superbly in that context, but he was also a fantastic composer.... Piazzolla wanted to take the tango and move it to places it had never been; he wanted to take risks and create something unique. Unfortunately, his efforts weren't always understood or appreciated."

Collier and Azzi trace Piazzolla's life and times from his youth in Manhattan to his teen years in Argentina, from his maturation as a musician to his emergence as a pivotal composer. He began learning the bandoneon, a distant cousin to the accordion, in his childhood. He initially resisted the instrument, preferring to play baseball or hang out with neighborhood friends. But his parents' insistence that he take music lessons, coupled with the help of a next-door neighbor, Hungarian pianist Bela Wilda, changed Piazzolla's life forever. Wilda, a former pupil of Sergei Rachmaninoff, introduced the young musician to classical music; at the same time, Piazzolla often journeyed to Harlem to hear the music of swing bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway, among others. These two seemingly divergent elements, jazz improvisation and classical composition, became a fundamental part of Piazzolla's later musical development.

When he returned to his native Argentina at age 16, Piazzolla was already determined to carve a new direction for the tango. His raw instrumental skills earned him notice, and at one point he was earning a good living heading a popular band on the dance circuit. Eventually, though, this work left him unfulfilled, and Piazzolla left Argentina for Paris, where he met and studied with heralded classical composer Nadia Boulanger.

The book's later chapters cover Piazzolla's collaborations with such jazz and classical greats as Gary Burton, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and producer/percussionist Kip Hanrahan. Piazzolla issued three spectacular albums on Hanrahan's American Clave label in the late '80s: Zero Tango Hour, La Camorra, and The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (all of which are currently in print). He also composed music for ballets and operas while leading nonets and quintets; he even occasionally worked with orchestras.

"Piazzolla was always a controversial figure in Argentina," Collier says. "There were many, many people who felt what he was doing was a perversion of the tango. He was writing music that didn't sound the way some people felt the tango should sound, and he was bringing in new concepts to a style that had been established for many years. There were actually people who threatened his life, because they hated his music so much. It was only after he became so celebrated in Europe and America that people in Argentina began to take a second look."

Collier and Azzi don't ignore Piazzolla's life off the bandstand. They spotlight the personality flaws that sometimes hindered his success, most notably his explosive temper, and discuss his often colorful pastimes, which included gourmet food and fast cars. It's not a stretch to suggest that Piazzolla enjoyed life on the edge--something that clearly extended to his music.

Currently the chairman of Vanderbilt's history department and a recognized scholar on Latin American politics and culture, Collier has also written a biography of noted tango vocalist Carlos Gardel, who ranks a close second to Piazzolla among tango artisans. When asked to name a favorite Piazzolla album or composition, the author responds, "I love all his work and listen to some of it at least once a day." He notes that if Piazzolla had lived into the mid-'90s, the composer probably would have incorporated electronic elements into his works, though Collier isn't so sure whether he'd have utilized hip-hop and rap nuances.

"I think Astor Piazzolla is one of music's true geniuses, someone whom people are still discovering today," Collier says. "I hope this book will help introduce those who don't know about him to his music, and give those who have heard him a better understanding of his work."

With Le Grand Tango, Collier and Azzi have achieved their objective. Now, if only some savvy label would undertake an extensive Piazzolla reissue program, the maestro's legacy could be fully appreciated. Until then, curious listeners will have to get their fill replaying those few masterpieces that are available on CD.

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