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Piazzolla, Astor (Pantaleon)

Composer Astor Piazzolla focused tango through a modern lens. Drawing techniques and harmonies from modern composition and jazz, he created a refracted version of Argentina's music, which was simultaneously rooted in tradition, yet unpredictable and iconoclastic.

                                    Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

A child prodigy, Piazzolla's career began in the golden age of Argentine tango in the early thirties. As the genre went into decline, he began a journey which refused to accept old boundaries and created a new music that thumped, scraped, screeched, electrified and soothed: Nuevo Tango.

Astor Pantaleon Piazzolla was born on March 11, 1921 to Italian immigrant parents in Mar Del Plata, a coastal village 420 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1925, his father Vincent and mother Asunta Menetti moved with their young son to New York City, where lived in the Little Italy section of Lower Manhattan.

Not long after their arrival in New York Vincent gave Astor a bandoneón, a diatonic accordion with buttons instead of a keyboard, the kind favored by musicians of Buenos Aires. By the time he was nine, Astor was good enough to play professionally.

After studying with Andres D’Aquila for a year, at age ten Astor his first recording, “Marionette Spagnol,” at the Radio Recording Studio, in New York. In 1932, he composed his first tango, “La Catinga,” which has never been recorded.

In 1933, Vincent introduced Astor to Carlos Gardel, the Argentine singer and actor who was an international sensation at the time. Gardel was impressed enough with the boy's musical skills that he invited him to go on tour. While his parents refused the offer, because of the boy's young age, they did allow him to to record with Gardel, and he played a small part as a newspaper boy in the iconic film “El Dia Que Me Quieras.” Gardel perished when his plane crashed year later.

During these formative years in New York, Astor absorbed the music of the great Swing Era bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. In 1933, he began to study piano with Hungarian pianist Bela Wilda, who had been a student of Rachmaninov. Wilder exposed Astor to Mozart, Chopin, and Bach.

Astor returned to Argentina in 1936, where played bandoneón with a variety of local groups in Mar del Plata. He led one group based on the sextet style of violinist Elvino Vardaro, with whom he would play many years later.

Moving to Buenos Aires in 1938, Piazzolla played with a number of larger groups, among them Anibal Troilo’s Orquesta Típica. The "orquesta típica" was a descendant of the orquesta tipica “criolla,” originated by bandleader Vicente Greco (1889-1924), which consisted of violin, flute, guitar and bandoneón. The more common configuration of a "típica" group was considerably larger, employing two violins, two bandoneóns, double bass, piano, and often two vocalists.

With Troilo, Piazzolla took on multiple roles as an arranger, sometime pianist, and second bandoneón. While Troilo was a great friend and mentor to Astor, who helped him get established as a performer in Argentina, he found the atmosphere musically stifling. Troilo felt free to edit Piazzolla’s compositions, in order to make them more danceable.

Also during this period, Piazzolla studied theory and composition with composer Alberto Ginastera, who unlike Troilo encouraged the boy to be creative, and to expand the range of influences in his compositions.

In 1944, Piazzolla left Troilo’s orchestra to lead the orchestra that accompanied singer Francisco Fiorentino. Together, they recorded twenty-four sides, which included “Nos Encontramos Al Pasar,” “Viejo Ciego,” and “Volvio Una Noche,” as well as the first two instrumentals composed by Piazzolla, “La Chiflada” and “Color de Rosa.”

Still feeling restricted by the limitations of traditional Argentine music and the demands of the marketplace, Piazzolla formed his own group, Orquesta 46, in 1946. Over the next two years, he recorded 30 pieces with this orchestra, mostly reworkings of older tangos, but also among this group were two original compositions, “Pigmalion” and “Villeguita."

During this time, Piazzolla composed a number of tangos, and often also the arrangements, which quickly became classics in the repertoire of some of the most popular tango orchestras, including those of Troilo, Francin-Pontier, Osvaldo Fresedo and Jose Basso.

In the early 1950s, Piazzolla began to question whether he should continue playing tango. As a performer, he vacillated between the bandoneón and the piano, and entertained the idea of committing himself to classical music.

In 1954, Piazzolla won a fellowship from the French government, ironically for a piece which elicited boos from audiences in Buenos Aires. The “Sinfonia Buenos Aires” is a raucous and foreboding piece, with thundering timpanies, jagged melodies and counterpoint punctuated by moments of eerie calm.

In Paris, Piazzolla studied with Nadia Boulanger, who taught dozens of modern composers, such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and David Amram, as well as jazz musicians and arrangers, including Quincy Jones, Burt Bachrach and Donald Byrd.

Boulanger was intrigued by the complexity and volume of Piazzolla’s classical compositions, but she felt there was something missing. She probed the secretive Piazzolla, who at firstdidn’t want to reveal he was a tango musician. “Finally I confessed, and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own," he wrote in his memoirs. "Suddenly she opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: ‘You idiot, that’s Piazzolla!’ And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.”

While in Paris, Piazzolla recorded with the strings of the Paris Opera Orchestra, Martial Solal on piano and himself on bandoneon, They recorded 16 pieces, 14 of which were his own compositions. One of these was “Nonino” a precursor to his most famous composition, “Adios Nonino.”

Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires, where he formed the Octeto Buenos Aires. The guiding ethos of this project was to find the absolute best musicians and to utilize them strategically, much as Ellington had done, and to interpret traditional tangos such as “El Marne,”, “Los Mareados,” “Mirefugio” and “Arrabal” with the precision of a chamber music group.

The octet included 2 bandoneóns, 2 violins, double bass, cello, piano and electric guitar. The addition of electric rather than a classical guitar, was considered unusual at the time. Also unusual was the absence of dancers or singers. This is considered to be the earliest appearance of Piazzolla's mature musical concept, which he later called Nuevo Tango.

These departures from the traditional tango forms were met with strident criticisms at the time from the Argentine public and critical establishment. So, in 1958 Piazzolla returned to New York, where he briefly attempted to meld the tango with jazz, but he was dissatisfied with the results.

In 1959, Piazzolla's father died and he returned to Buenos Aires, where he composed and recorded "Adios Nonino" as an elegy to his father. In 1960, he formed the Quinteto Nuevo Tango, which consisted of bandoneón, piano, violin, electric guitar and double bass.

With this group he performed and workshopped ideas in jam sessions at a club he owned in Buenos Aires, called the Jamaica. As he refined his idiosyncratic approach to composition, he won the Hirsch Prize for “Tres Tangos Sinfonicos” in 1963, and in 1965 premiered “El Tango” at the Philharmonic Hall in New York. Considered to be the fullest expression of Nuevo Tango, one of Piazzolla’s defining works, he premiered “Operita de Buenos Aires” in 1966.

In 1965 Piazzolla and the author Jorge Luis Borges collaborated on the album “El Tango.” The music, Piazzola wrote in the album's liner notes “ranges from the simplest tango essence to hints of dodecaphonic music.” Out of print for more than forty years, in 1996 Emmanuel Chamboredon commissioned a new recording of the pieces, featuring Daniel Binelli, who played bandoneón with Piazzola on the original.

By the 1970s Piazzolla was acclaimed internationally, and finally began to receive the critical and popular acclaim in his native Argentina that had previously proved elusive.

With the Conjunto 9, a nonet he formed in 1972, Piazzolla composed and recorded a number of arrangements, among them “Musica Contemporanea de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires”, “Vardarito” and “Tristezas de un Doble A”. This last piece can be heard on a live recording performed with the Quinteto Nuevo Tango in Montreux, Switzerland in 1987.

Piazzolla introduces the piece as an homage to the early masters of the bandoneón. It begins with almost 12 minutes of solo bandoneón traversing a wide range of emotion and color, melodies played at times hard and hurtling, at others suspended, weightless.

The first instrument to join the bandoneón is the piano in a wistful and descending minor progression, then the double bass outlining the tonics unobtrusively. The bandoneón and piano exchange Baroque-sounding fills in the higher register. By the time the electric guitar and violin enter, the instruments lock into a tango groove.

The sections alternate between extreme counterpoint and the painfully bare solitude of the minor groove. At times verging on the avant-garde, violin, guitar, piano and bandoneón all make non-melodic percussive sounds, while the double bass keeps the figure moving below.

In 1973 Piazzolla moved to Italy, where he composed “Balada Para Mi Muerte” with the singer Milva, “Libertango” and “Suite Troileana,” and ode to his former mentor who died in 1975.

At the height of popular and critical success, Piazzolla suffered a massive heart attack for Piazzolla at age 53. The heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery slowed the composer down only briefly, however, for before long he was back to his characteristically prolific output, scoring films, including for the director Roman Polanski, and making numerous recordings.

In 1974, Piazzolla worked with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1974, on the album “Summit.” This and and other collaborations with jazz musicinas demonstrate that, despite Piazzolla's own perception of failure in his attempts to meld jazz with tango, his compositional approach and progressive spirit fit well into a new generation's expanded jazz idiom.

On “20 Years Ago” an electric bass plays a funky, staccato, laid-back figure, electric piano outlines the chords, strings provide a majestic backdrop, Piazzolla’s bandoneon rhythmically accents the harmony, then enters Mulligan’s saxophone which plays a figure before trading points of filigree with the bandoneon. At a point of crescendo tension increases as each member of the band plays contributes counterpoint, melodic and harmonic, until the tune’s crescendo gradually abates, in release.

In 1986 Piazzolla composed the music for the Broadway musical “Tango Argentina”, and released an album with the Kronos Quartet. The following year he released an album with vibes player Gary Burton, “The New Tango with Gary Burton."

The selection “Nuevo Tango” begins with a characteristically urgent into, with strings making long glissandi and percussive sounds, Burton’s vibes doubling the melody also being played on bandoneon, bring an unexpected new color, simultaneously soft and metallic.

The frenetic feel continues, then abruptly moves into a swaying half-time 3/4; followed by a section were Burton’s vibes exchange and interweave melodies with the violin. Again the piece returns to the rushing-in-a crowd-looking-for-your-lost-beloved urgency, then, boom! That’s it; you’re not exactly home, but at least you’re in one piece.

In March of 1989, Piazzola saw Placido Domingo play the lead in “Gardel,” a tango opera he composed for the star who gave him his first break. Later in the year, in worsening health, Piazzolla cut short an international tour was cut short. After a period of lightened activity, Piazzolla died on the July 5th, 1992 of a stroke.

Many of the recordings mentioned in this profile can be found in a CD box set, Piazzollissimo 1974-1983, relased in 1995.

Select Discography

The Vienna Concert (1986)

Tango: Zero Hour (1986)

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (1987)

The New Tango with Gary Burton (1987)

La Camorra: La Soledad de Provocacion Apasionada (1989)

Tangos (3) for Bandoneon and Orchestra (1990)

Maria de Buenos Aires (1991)

Five Tango Sensations (1991)

Lumiere, Tropical Storm (1992)

The Lausanne Concert (1992)

Sur (1992)

The Central Park Concert (1994)

Piazzollissimo 1974-1983 (1995)

Contributor: Ricardo Quiñones