Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

plays Astor Piazzolla


Anyone lucky enough to have heard the brilliant Argentinean Astor Piazzolla at Tramway in Glasgow, in 1989, will know that the music he created, tango nuevo, had everything: drama, intensity, romance, beautiful melodies, darkness and light. It was music that reflected Piazzolla’s own life.


The bare bones of his story would make a great film, to which the soundtrack has already been written by Piazzolla himself. Given his first bandoneon, the button-keyed cousin of the accordion that would become his voice, at the age of eight when his homesick father bought him one in a New York pawn shop for $19, Piazzolla made his first recording just two years later. Good enough at thirteen to be invited on tour by one of tango’s leading lights, Carlos Gardel, he had his hopes dashed by his father, who told him he was too young for such an experience. In doing so, his father saved Astor’s life, because it was during this tour that Gardel and his band died in a plane crash.


Later, Piazzolla’s music, like one of his great heroes and influences, Igor Stravinksy, incited outbreaks of violence, as his ideas were considered too extreme, and attracted hurtful criticism as well as winning prizes for creativity. There were periods of doubt as to where his art lay and years of exile and public indifference, and then having finally achieved world-wide acclaim in his sixties, there’s the boy who grew up in New York, but never felt truly at home there, playing to a massive, adoring audience in Central Park in 1987.


Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata in 1921, his Italian parents coming from exactly the sort of stock – immigrants - that had played such a big part in tango’s birth in Buenos Aires in the previous century. When he was four, the family moved to New York, where as well as meeting Gardel, the young Astor heard jazz and Bach and played a newspaper boy in a movie, El Dia Que Me Quieras, that became a big hit with tango audiences.


When the family returned to Argentina in 1937, Astor played in traditional tango bands, including the orchestra of leading bandoneonista Anibal Troilo, for which Astor became the arranger. But a meeting with pianist Arthur Rubenstein, then resident in Buenos Aires, set him on a different course. Still playing for dancers by night, by day he studied Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel and began composing orchestral works and movie scores. His Buenos Aires Symphony won him a grant to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who promptly told him that his orchestral works were well enough written but his bandoneon playing was where she heard the true Piazzolla.


He returned to Argentina and began developing a new approach to tango. His unorthodox style, which he described as chamber music rather than dancing music and borrowed arranging ideas from big band jazz, proved more readily popular in Europe than at home, although more liberal sections of Argentinean society saw his musical revolution as a parallel to their political one.


During Argentina’s period under military dictatorship, Piazzolla lived in Italy. He formed bonds with jazz saxophonist and composer Gerry Mulligan and the French accordionist Richard Galliano and with his New Tango Quintet he began to achieve the recognition around the world that his talent and music deserved.


In 1989, at the age of sixty-eight and still pouring his heart and soul into his creations, he formed the New Tango Sextet that he brought to Glasgow, where in his trademark style of standing up to play with one foot on a chair, he proved to be a sharp wit as well as a brilliant musician. He suffered a heart attack a few months later and in 1992 he died a hero to millions all over the world and, most importantly, to Argentineans, for whom Piazzolla had become the man who disproved the adage that “in Argentina everything may change – except the tango.”


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