Astor Piazzolla imagined la hora cero as the time after midnight, ‘an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.’ It was not by chance, then, that early in his career, he titled one of his break-through pieces Buenos Aires Hora Cero. It could not have been by chance that, as he was entering his autumn days, he called an album that summed up decades of hard work and carried deep personal hopes and professional expectations, Tango: Zero Hour. By the mid-1980s, Astor Piazzolla had long been celebrated in Europe, and finally, grudgingly, been given the respect he deserved in his native Argentina. The irony was that despite his American upbringing, recognition in the United States still eluded him.
Piazzolla rarely visited New York after leaving the city in 1960. When he returned briefly to record Zero Hour twenty six years later, he was musically at a peak. He had distilled years of apprenticeship as tanguista, the lessons learned from his classical teachers, his fascination for jazz, and the memories of a thousand bruising battles as a one-man tango avant-garde into a music that was sophisticated, profound and emotionally direct. He also had an extraordinary instrument with which to play it, for at Zero Hour, he was into a ten-year run with The New Tango Quintet.
His Octeto Buenos Aires, organized in 1955 after he returned to Buenos Aires from Paris, energized by his studies with Nadia Boulanger and his encounter with Gerry Mulligan’s Octet, marked the great divide between traditional tango and what came to be known as Nuevo Tango. Piazzolla’s first quintet, which remained loosely together from 1960 to 1970, pushed the boundaries of Nuevo Tango as quickly as it established them. His short-lived Conjunto 9 (1971-72)—in fact a string quartet and quintet featuring a trap drummer—sparked his most elaborate writing for small ensemble. But the New Tango Quintet, convened in 1978, was in a class by itself. Having come together through a mix of vision and chance, the quintet on this recording features Piazzolla on bandoneon, Fernando Suarez Paz on violin, Pablo Ziegler on piano, Horacio Malvicino, Sr. on guitar and Héctor Console on bass.
It was a fortunate mix. A jazz player at heart, Malvicino had once injected jazz-style improvisation into the music of the Octeto Buenos Aires—a revolution within a revolution in tango. With a background in both jazz and classical music, Ziegler was an ideal partner. ‘The difference in this group,’ Malvicino recalled recently, ‘was that Astor for the first time had a pianist with a jazz background. Ziegler was not an authentic tanguero, but a guy who learned a lot with Astor and became a tanguero—whether he wanted to or not.’ The reserved Console, schooled on tango and classical music, was the foundation of the quintet, rock solid but also nimble and exceptionally sensitive. The classically trained Suarez Paz, in what had traditionally been the star role in Piazzolla’s group, proved to be a brilliant technician with heart to match and grit to spare.
By the time The New Tango Quintet went into the studio, it had assumed the spirit of its leader—it was cosmopolitan and streetwise, erudite but also passionate, elegant yet tough. In the span of one piece, the quintet could suggest a chamber group one moment, and a rugged, Saturday night neighborhood tango dance band the next. As Ziegler explains, ‘By the time we recorded Zero Hour we knew each other by smell, and something had taken shape well beyond the scores. We all got along very well. We were very tight personally, we loved the music, and Astor loved the group. He loved his musicians. That’s what you hear. That and that stuff in the cracks of the music, the passion, the grime that came to the surface over years of playing together.’ To this Malvicino adds, ‘It was clear this was not just another record. This was the great American adventure, the conquering of America.’
These nuances might have been lost on some producers, but in Kip Hanrahan, Piazzolla found someone who could not only hear them, but appreciate and capture them. Initially, the Bronx-born Hanrahan might have seemed a curious choice. He had an adventurous but small label, American Clavé, and was best known as a composer of knotty avant-ethnic fusion and a sui generis bandleader. (Coincidentally, the offices of American Clavé were just blocks away from where Piazzolla had lived as a child.) According to Malvicino, ‘Astor was disenchanted with the big labels. He felt they had not treated him with respect. Kip loved Piazzolla. He had a tremendous admiration, a passion, for everything Piazzolla, and knew his work from the days of his orquesta tipica (traditional tango orchestra). Kip is not your average guy, he might not be easy sometimes, but he is great fun, has a great sense of humor, and he and Astor got along wonderfully.’
Throughout his career, Piazzolla wrote and arranged specifically for the musicians in his group. Contrabajisimo, the new work in the recording and perhaps the highlight of Zero Hour, is dedicated to Console. Piazzolla also constantly reworked his material, as if probing it from different angles. Tanguedia III opens with voices—the members of the group—reciting, mantra-like, the words ‘tango-tragedia-comedia-kilombo (whorehouse)’, Piazzolla’s tongue-in-cheek formula for Nuevo Tango. Up close, you can hear Piazzolla himself kidding around in Italian, breaking up his players. The piece was first recorded in 1984, for the film The Exile of Gardel, but this version has sinister elegance and greater weight. Milonga Loca, actually Tanguedia II and originally part of the same soundtrack, has become faster, looser and crisper here.
Concierto para Quinteto, first recorded in 1971, not only features notable contributions by Suarez Paz and Piazzolla, it offers a glimpse of where Piazzolla was going with the group. ‘Ah, yes, I had to take a test in the rehearsals showing him that I was not playing jazz and I was getting a handle on improvising with the Buenos Aires feel that Ziegler had mastered,’ says Malvicino. ‘After Zero Hour I got carte blanche and improvised much more.’
These are demanding pieces, yet the individual playing remains consistently precise and intense throughout. As an ensemble, Piazzolla and his New Tango Quintet sound focused, loose and forceful. They are in total control of the music and prove it by casually changing direction, moods and dynamics on a dime. Piazzolla immediately recognized that the quintet had accomplished something special, believing it to be ‘the greatest record I’ve made in my life. We gave our souls to it. This is the record I can give to my grandchildren and say, This is what we did with our lives.’
After Zero Hour, the quintet would go on to produce one more masterpiece, the underrated La Camorra, a magnificent summation of tango history that stands as Piazzolla’s final tribute to those who came before him and a dare to those who might follow him.
With so much to choose from, Piazzolla fans will argue endlessly about favorite players, groups, arrangements and performances. But sometime in May 1986, in New York, Astor Piazzolla, Fernando Suárez Paz, Pablo Ziegler, Horacio Malvicino Sr., Hector Console and Kip Hanrahan found their hora cero at exactly the same time.
̶ Is tango very different from classical music, Marietta? To play, I mean.
̶ Oh yes, and it’s not just a question of technique. It’s more about attitude. The passion, the feel, the rhythmic drive—tango’s got a whole culture behind it, a fierce pride.
Neuchâtel is a world away from Romani ritual: How did you acquire that fierce pride and passion, that fire that branded ‘Tzigane’ in my heart? I’m sure you’re just as convincing in the idiom of Buenos Aires low-life.
̶ You hear that slow, descending line, the minor key? you ask.
̶ That’s the milonga pattern. It comes from song. Compare it to the first piece, and you clearly hear the two extremes of tango: very strict, driving rhythm, and extremely romantic music.
̶ That’s a compelling combination!
Here it comes, the old pain, just like I knew it would.
You toss the photos onto the table and leap into my lap. From the ancient well, from the wound that won’t heal, my tears come.
̶ Listen, Sprague, listen to the music!.
You kiss my eyes.
̶ Tango is like the blues.
I don’t want you to see me like this. Certainly not now.
̶ It’s an investigation…
You kiss my cheeks.
̶ …of human relationships…
You lap up my tears with your tongue.
̶ …of what it means to be human…
You wipe my face with your hair.
̶ …in a world that is lonely.
I get a grip on myself, and then I start crying again.
̶ Oh Sprague!
My fingers ride the silk route of your spine; in the lustrous thicket of your hair they harvest the bombycin fleece.
̶ Listen: You hear how the violin alternates between playing the melody and providing percussive background?
̶ That’s a violin, that plucking?
You rise onto your knees: I pull you back down.
Lady, do not rise
Till Lazarus has bestowed
His blessing: A kiss
‘Milonga Loca’ is utterly beguiling.
̶ He’s playing pizzicato with the right hand while touching the side of the string with the second fingernail of his left hand. That’s what creates that metallic sound.
You slip out of my embrace and sit sideways on the sofa.
Getting right to an angle that matters: this isn’t Astor Piazzolla’s last record, it’s a sketch of what could have been a last statement/record. Or maybe a set of sketches, forming a blueprint of a last record. There’s a difference, but I’m not sure if the truth doesn’t go back and forth.
Anyway, the record that exists was posthumously finished and assembled as to exact, derailed instructions written by and gone over with El Troesma [Buenos Aires slang for ‘maestro’] a few months before his final stroke. It was at that point we realized that we might not have the time or financial opportunity to record, or according to the book-keepers, re-record the record correctly. Unless we went over all the available material and decided what needed to be changed, assembled, eclipsed, referred to, and unless we constructed a schema, the record company would uncritically assemble the unfinished material and release it, possibly as Astor’s epitaph… Hell, it could never really be anything but comically inconclusive… We used to joke about Prelude to the Cyclical Night being his fake epitaph, Astor’s false ending. It made sense to conclude this disc with it.
On the other projects I worked on with Astor, I’d finish the record according to his detailed instructions, then finish another record, sometimes a radically alternative record, and send both tapes to the Master. Usually he’d call back immediately, excited, and with a few changes, decide to go with my alternative. Without a shot at Astor’s final approval, I of course was locked into his last instructions, taking only the creative freedom he explicitly gave me for this project. Oh, man, the record we wanted to make… So here, joining his unfinished opera about the discovery of the New World and his unrealized plans to reform the Quintet for one last tour and record, is the sextet record. But at least for this we have a beautiful set of detailed notes.
The band made a discreet entrance. Six elderly gentlemen, uniform black shirts, no smiles. They tuned up and started to play—and it was like a rush of cool, salty air through that hot Berlin night. That was my introduction to Tango Nuevo. You couldn’t connect it to anything else in music. Piano, double bass and guitar created a bumpy rhythmic figure, over which the two soloists coaxed a jarring, swooping melody from their serpentine squeeze boxes. There was a sigh of recognition from the audience around me. The musicians were soon drenched with sweat.
We met for dinner after the gig, at the Hotel Berlin. Still in black shirts: Binelli, Gandini, Bragato, Malvicino and the bassist Console with his beautiful wife. The leader was amazingly sprightly for a 68-year-old with a serious heart condition who’d just done a work-out in the heat of the sun. He drafted a running order for our programme on the back of the menu. He was anxious to discuss the matter of the boxes. ‘They should be eighteen inches square, exactly. And solid. ‘For the legs, you understand.’ I didn’t. He explained: the left leg of the bandoneon player needs to be raised, so that the extended instrument can rest across it. The bandoneon is an accordion on the grand scale: 78 buttons, using all ten fingers, with a massive three-foot bellows.
The early tango was an aggressive, often violent dance, with movements suggestive of knife fights and sexual stimulation: the corte (frozen moment), the quebrada (twist), the refalada (glide). In the 1920s it became a popular song form, and was romanticized. Carlos Gardel emerged from the slums of Buenos Aires to become a tango star in Europe and America. In New York, he was introduced to a 13-year-old bandoneon player who had taught himself to play Bach preludes on this beast of an instrument. This was Piazzolla. He played in Gardel’s orchestra and appeared in films with him. In 1954 he won a scholarship to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
In the years that followed, he reached beyond tango’s traditional borders to redefine the form. This caused a furore in Buenos Aires. ‘They said I was out of my mind, they said I was a Martian—anything but a man of tango. A man beat me up in the street outside a cabaret, because he said I was changing the music! I suppose it was a sentimental problem. But traditional tango is boring. It’s repetitive—the same old tunes, the same cheap harmonies. You play it like a robot. I wanted to make a change—it was in my blood. I found a new way of composing, and a new way of playing, a new expression. You must remember: the people of Argentina are emotional.’
Three days after Berlin, a minibus brought the New Tango Sextet from Heathrow to Bristol. The boxes were inspected and found to be satisfactory. Eyebrows were raised at the exotic bandstand created for the studio by designer Edward Lipscombe. The television director wanted the musicians to play ‘in the round’, facing one another, backs to the audience. This eccentricity was the subject of a lengthy debate in Spanish. But they agreed, and played for an hour, holding audience and studio crew spellbound. When he left, Piazzolla said to me: ‘I think sometimes musicians can achieve what the diplomats never will’.