"So many tangos, so little time!" So said accordion wizard Guy Klusevcek during a concert of tangos he gave a few seasons ago, and in the intervening time, American enthusiasm for the genre has grown greater than ever.
It's hard to pin down reasons for the tango trend, but American composer John Adams makes interesting points in his notes for a new CD devoted to the late Argentine musician Astor Piazzolla, one of its masters. Piazzolla made his first impact on the Northern Hemisphere about the same time as several Latin American authors - Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges - and like them he sought a powerful mixture of "brutality, magic, sensuality and humane honesty."
It can be argued that Piazzolla did for the tango what Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz did for the bossa nova, what Johann Strauss did for the waltz, even what Frdric Chopin did for the tude and the polonaise: bring it from minor, marginal status to a lasting, vigorous role on the music scene.
But Adams is honest about the tango's limitations, suggesting that part of Piazzolla's greatness lay in his rare ability to raise this "single small musical form" into a vehicle more encompassing than skeptics would have thought possible. New recordings of Piazzolla's work bear out both parts of this equation. They confirm the specialized nature of the tango itself, along with the dazzling variety its most renowned exponent - along with Antonio Gardel, whose pieces are ripe for American rediscovery - was able to give it.
Lest anyone think only Argentines can do the tango justice, listeners should remember that Piazzolla was himself a cosmopolitan figure, born to Italian parents who took him from Argentina to New York during the Depression years. His teachers included Latin composer Alberto Ginastera and the legendary Nadia Boulanger, both giants of 20th-century classical music.
A desire to blend performing with composing led him back to his populist roots in musical shows and tango ensembles, though, and his innovative "nuevo tango" approach placed him firmly on the musical map during the late 1950s. His varied background is another aid in explaining the ever-growing popularity of his music, which has a multicultural sensibility bred in what Adams calls the "jumble" of colliding traditions - Spanish, German, Jewish, native American, Italian - in modern Buenos Aires.
Of the new Piazzolla recordings, the most ambitious is "Hommage Piazzolla," since it launches a whole Piazzolla series from the Nonesuch label. Violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer, a superstar in his own right, assembled the quartet that performs its 11 selections, most of which feature the bandonen - the accordion-like instrument that Piazzolla mastered in his youth - along with sounds more familiar to Northern ears. The group's style is not particularly dynamic or emotionally charged, but its very coolness makes this a notably elegant excursion into exotic territory. Adams's articulate liner notes are another plus.
There's more flamboyance afoot in "Los Tangueros," a CD from Sony Classical that takes its title from the Argentine term for people who either play or dance the tango. What makes this recording unique is its instrumentation: two pianos, played by classical star Emanuel Ax and tango specialist Pablo Ziegler, who spent a decade as the pianist in Piazzolla's own quintet. They cut loose on a dozen pieces, favoring passion over subtlety and making no apologies for the offbeat nature of their project. The result is as rousing as it is eccentric, although dedicated tango-lovers and duo-piano freaks may be its primary audience.
Sony's recording is probably a one-shot, but Nonesuch has already recorded a second volume of Kremer and company, joined by other musicians with strong Piazzolla connections. That label will also reissue three discs made by Piazzolla for American Clave Records, with the first to arrive in a few months. Keep your dancing shoes on, because there's more tangoing to come.