Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Astor Piazzolla

  • Tango: Zero Hour [American Clavé, 1986] A-
  • The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night [American Clavé, 1988] A-
  • La Camorra: La Soledad de la Provacación Apasionada (The Solitude of Passionate Provocation) [American Clavé, 1989] B+
  • Maria de Buenos Aires [Milan, 1991] Dud
  • Love Tanguedia [Tropical Storm, 1991] ***
  • The Rough Guide to Astor Piazzolla [World Music Network, 2005] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tango: Zero Hour [American Clavé, 1986]
Until Piazzolla, I never gave a thought to tango, which I conceived vaguely as the music of displaced Europeans slumming their way through an American limbo, compounding angst and self-regard into ridiculous sexual melodrama. But now that I put all that down on paper, it seems both kind of interesting and ripe for destabilization. Piazzolla has been exploring both possibilities since 1946 and claims this is the best of his 40 albums. True semipop, dance music for the cerebellum, with the aesthetic tone of a jazz-classical fusion Gunther Schuller never dreamed. A-

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night [American Clavé, 1988]
Suddenly hot in Dollarland at age 67, Piazzolla is flooding the bins, with his earlier American Clave albums reissued by Pangaea (structure and sustained intensity make Tango: Zero Hour an unusually unsoporific CD), a Montreux concert with Gary Burton available from Atlantic Jazz, and a collaboration with Lalo Schifrin out on Nonesuch. Piazzolla has even less to do with jazz than Gary Burton; he's closer to Bartok the composer than to Ellington the orchestrator, and tends to limit improvisatory space. But the symphonic accompaniment of Schifrin, an Argentinian who straddles pop and classical himself, rarely obtrudes and sometimes even amplifies, so those who prefer their exotica with cushions should opt for Concerto para Bandoneon/Tres Tangos. Me, I don't find Piazzolla's music so alien that it can't be absorbed full force, in the acerbically melodramatic compositions he creates for his quintet. Conceived for a theatre piece, this collection is episodic even given the composer's penchant for abrupt mood shifts. But its historical overview, beginning with the "primitive" tango that shook a younger pop world, is just the thing to provide the hint of roots rock and rollers prefer in their exotica. Oh those crazy urban folk. A-

La Camorra: La Soledad de la Provacación Apasionada (The Solitude of Passionate Provocation) [American Clavé, 1989]
Maybe I'm getting sated--how many jazz-classical-tango suites does a Yank rock and roller need? Still, as someone who never had much use for Red Headed Stranger, I note that the historical metaphor this time is the guapo--a "hero or hoodlum," hold the hero. Also, the ruminative interludes suggest that Piazzolla's gift is for passion rather than romanticism. B+

Maria de Buenos Aires [Milan, 1991] Dud

Love Tanguedia [Tropical Storm, 1991]
less subtle than the American Clave versions (I count five repeats), but not so as newcomers could tell ("Return to Love (Regreso al Amor") ***

The Rough Guide to Astor Piazzolla [World Music Network, 2005]
The tango master cut a lot of pro forma music for Milan, the French soundtrack-electronica-semiclassical outfit that claims to "represent" Piazzolla's "complete catalog" and doesn't come close--his great American Clave albums, for instance, are now with Nonesuch. But the half of this gratifying selection that started on Milan--including "Tanguedia 3" and "Los Sueños," both reprised for American Clave--packs a full measure of dynamic sophistication and high drama, and as Grace Jones or Yo-Yo Ma could tell you, "Libertango" is just where to begin. Concentrating on his mature period--which strictly speaking means 1978 to 1988, although there are three 1975 tracks and one from the '50s--this is as convincing an introduction as Tango: Zero Hour itself. A

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1990s]: The New York-born tango revolutionary made some 40 albums before escaping his niche with 1986's severe, white-hot Tango: Zero Hour, and once he died in 1992, there seemed a chance every one of them would be repackaged along with 12 miles of concert tape--as I write, one web retailer lists 79 consumables. Stick with the Kip Hanrahan-enabled Zero Hour, then seek out its follow-up, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night; avoid classical ensembles, jazz vibraphonists, and the Milan label. Back when I was trying, I rather liked Tropical Storm's Love Tanguedia. But if you crave a dose of avant-garde romanticism con bandoneon, why not just spring for the three-CD Tangamente 1968-1973? That ought to hold you for a while.