The Argentine musical master Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was a disrupter, in the manner of Stravinsky, the Dadaists, Bob Dylan and, yes, even the Sex Pistols (or, at least, Malcolm McLaren). He embodied both the beauty and the beastliness of life. Beaten to a pulp by Jake LaMotta. Tango was music that grew out of Italian bordellos and, despite being denounced by the Vatican and polite society, became a craze in Argentina.
The music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the legendary Argentine composer, bandoneon player, arranger and infamous “tango assassin,” never fit neatly into any musical category. Perhaps it is more easily defined by what it is not. It is not tango, not classical, and not jazz. It is, however, sexy and violent, romantic and edgy, melancholic yet tense. It is an altogether singular music ultimately deemed subversive for attempting to undermine the Argentine national culture.
Astor Piazzolla, “Zita,” live performance, 1977:
And perhaps most tellingly, his innovations were—along with Igor Stravinski’s Rites of Spring in 1913, and Bob Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, on July 25, 1965—one of the few documented times when music infuriated a bewildered audience to the point of rioting. That is, on Aug. 16, 1953, Piazzolla’s composition Buenos Aires Symphony in Three Movements was performed in competition for the Fabian Sevitzky Award, with Sevitzky conducting. As the performance came to an end, offended members of the audience began to brawl over the use of two bandoneóns in a traditional symphonic setting.
“My musicians were threatened, but I was the troublemaker,” Piazzolla later confessed. “People there just can’t take it – somebody changing the music they used to love forty or fifty years ago.”
My mom had a funny way of looking at the world. She saw life through the prism of Hollywood actors, as if her friends were cast in the movie of her life. She always described people she knew like this: “Oh, she looks just like Lucille Ball, except she has brown hair or he’s tall, with a mustache, like Clark Gable, but he lacks those famous ‘bedroom eyes.’”
That practice of “casting” people rubbed off on me as well. I tend to look at them the same way… “He strongly resembles John Lennon, except he’s blond, or he kind of reminds me of ‘Gilligan’ but he’s Italian, so maybe more like Bob Denver meets Giancarlo Giannini.” I got to thinking along similar lines while writing this piece on Astor Piazzolla. Who would play him in the movie of his life? The first actor who came to mind was the exotic Yul Brenner – ruggedly handsome, a “man’s man.” But then I decided Robert Mitchum was more suited to the part. The “Mitch” had “edge.” Think about him as the serial-killing Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his fists.
Piazzolla was, like Mitchum’s Reverend, a fighter. He had no choice, growing up, the only child of Italian-Argentine immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. And then there were plenty of angry old school tango fanatics waiting outside Buenos Aries cabarets to pummel him for messing with their national art form. But Astor was no lightweight, surprising those stupid enough to mess with him, with a formidable left cross. Piazzolla’s music, like Mitchum’s knuckles, joined the torrid with the transcendental.
Yeah, he’s still in my system, like malaria. But there is something intoxicating, and cleansing, about the fever.
Born March 11, 1921, in the fishing village turned beach resort town of Mar del Plata (200 south of Buenos Aires), Piazzolla was gifted with a disfigured right leg – slightly shorter and thinner than the other. Astor’s childhood was framed by a series of painful operations which helped to correct a discernible limp. Pampered by his mother, Asunta, Astor’s father Vincente (aka “Nonino”) routinely demanded greatness from his son, pushing him to do anything better than a “normal” boy.
He was just 4 years old when his parents emigrated to New York City, finding an apartment over a pool hall at 8 St. Marks Place. Manhattan’s melting pot had an enormous impact on him. Astor later claimed the music from a nearby synagogue would inspire his use of odd time signatures. While Asunta worked as a cosmetologist at a beauty salon, creating her own brand of almond facial cream, Nonino cut hair at a nearby Sicilian-owned barbershop whose clientele included Mafia toughs.
For his ninth birthday Nonino, who was proficient on guitar and accordion, bought his son a small bandoneón for $18 that he found in a Bowery pawn shop. Similar in construction and sound to the button concertina, the bandoneón was originally created in the mid-1850s in Germany to play hymns in churches too humble to own a pipe organ or harmonium. Although being cumbersome and difficult to play, the instrument traveled by ship to Argentina, where it soon became essential to the tango.
Piazzolla became obsessed with the music of his homeland after listening to old 78s with his father every night after he came home from work. Unable to find a teacher familiar with bandoneón technique, Astor essentially mastered the instrument on his own, with the help of a neighbor, a classical pianist who tutored him in the intricacies of Bach and Mozart. Although he claimed to be “dreadfully bad,” Astor continued playing the instrument “only to please the old man.”
“I don’t think Astor really liked or loved the tango,” Piazzolla’s producer, Kip Hanrahan recalled in a caffeinated Bronx staccato. “I think he loved the music his father surrounded the family with, the sound they left behind when they left Argentina. It was the audible identity that made them different from the Italian and Jewish families that lived around them on the Lower East Side.”
Argentine culture was changing fast. American rock ‘n’ roll, spearheaded by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley (who performed there in 1958) “pushed tango underground,” Piazzolla claimed. At the same time, Astor’s Nuevo Tango, with its fresh approach to harmony and rhythm began to snuff out the flame of Argentina’s tango tradition.
Although Piazzolla ridiculed the reedy squeezebox as “diabolical,” and claimed that “anyone who played it must be out of their mind,” he soon became something of a prodigy. While excelling in music, writing his first composition at 11 years old, Astor had little to no interest in his studies. Pegged as a troublemaker, he was twice expelled from school before joining a gang. While Vincente taught his son how to box to defend himself on the streets of the Lower East Side, Astor also found inspiration and identified with the great Italian pugilists of the day – Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta (who once allegedly pummeled him so badly that Piazzolla lost all further interest in boxing). Adding to his tough exterior, Astor spoke English with a distinct New York accent, which stuck with him for life.
“He used to speak English with this incredible accent, melody and way of phrasing that he’d learned growing up in New York during the 1920s and ‘30s,” Hanrahan remembered. “In fact, that accent doesn’t really exist anymore, except in James Cagney movies.”
Despite the hard knocks he faced in New York, Astor was sad to leave Manhattan when his family returned to Buenos Aires at the beginning of the Depression. Initially they dodged the enormous problems of the escalating economic crisis. Nonino prospered briefly, opening a popular barber shop, followed by a bicycle shop, as well as a neighborhood bar that housed a small stage where Astor could perform. Things were fine for a while, until financial problems finally forced to sell his prized motorcycle and the family once more returned to New York.
Beneath its sensual rhythm, a deep well of sorrow and nostalgia lies within the tango that Piazzolla claimed was passed down through generations of Italian immigrant families unable to return to their homeland. As Astor pointed out to Richard Harrington of the Washington Post in May 1988: “Ninety-nine percent of the people who play tango are from Italian descent. The rest are Spanish, French and German.”
Astor also found inspiration and identified with the great Italian pugilists of the day – Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta (who once allegedly pummeled him so badly that Piazzolla lost all further interest in boxing).
Now living on East 9th street with his folks, Piazzolla was introduced to the great Argentine singer, Carlos Gardel, in 1934 and wound up accompanying the star of stage and screen on a number of occasions. While Gardel appreciated Astor’s bandoneón technique as “top-notch,” he claimed he “played tango like a gringo.” Gardel even gave the young Astor a walk-on part in his most recent film El dia que me quieras, (The Day You Love Me – released in 1935), playing a newsboy for which he was paid $25. Although he disparaged Astor as “a loafer,” Gardel sensed something about the boy and invited him to join his touring band. Surprisingly, Nonino (a great fan of Gardel) refused to let his son go, claiming Astor, at 14, was too young. That fateful decision turned out to save Piazzolla’s life, as Gardel and his orchestra all soon died in a plane crash. Over the years, Astor joked that if he’d had his wish, he would have wound up playing “the harp instead of the bandoneón.”
Four years later, Piazzolla returned to Argentina but was hardly welcomed for playing an eclectic mix of jazz and classical music on the bandoneón.
“They thought I was crazy,” he said, for playing “Rhapsody in Blue” or a tango the in the style of Duke Ellington, which was deemed “better left to the Americans.” Despite his predilection for mixing musical styles, Piazzolla (when not perfecting his skill shooting dice and playing billiards) found work as an arranger with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. Studying under the renowned Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, Astor fantasized of one day becoming “the George Gershwin of Argentina.”
In 1939, Astor joined Aníbal Troilo’s Orquestra, writing arrangements and playing second bandoneón for the popular bandleader and composer until 1944. While Troilo admired Piazzolla (and boosted his career considerably by showcasing his tremendous talents within his band), he felt Astor’s style of tango was too modern and difficult for people to dance to.
Astor fantasized of one day becoming “the George Gershwin of Argentina.”
Despite finding “the round faced” Astor, “a rather ugly boy,” the artist Odette Maria “Dedé” Wolff married him in 1942, undeterred by his deformed leg and rumors of his wild lifestyle. The couple settled down and had two children, Diana and Daniel (a respected musician today in Argentina). But Dedé’s upper-class family strongly objected to Astor’s lowlife occupation of playing tango in cabarets. Born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires and dismissed as the music of pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals, the controversy surrounding tango was similar to that of jazz, which had its shady origins in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans.
An article in the New York Times dated December 22, 1913 bore the headline: Tango Defeats Vatican – Clergy’s Efforts to Suppress Dancing Craze in Italy Fail. The author reported that: “Strenuous efforts made by the Vatican to suppress the tango dancing-mania in Italy have proved a failure. Following the example of Rome, there was issued throughout the country a circular, giving instructions to the clergy to initiate a crusade against the tango and similar dances as offensive to the purity of every right-minded person and unworthy of being introduced into houses and receptions attended by Catholic women. All the great Italian pulpit orators have fulminated against the fashion, which now, however, is practically general in the salons of the Eternal City itself.”
Hoping to appease his in-laws, Astor promised to study composition henceforth. He also (temporarily) traded in his bandoneón for the more respectable piano. “Then they liked me more,” he claimed. After taking first prize in a composers’ competition, Piazzolla and his family journeyed to Paris to work with the legendary composer/conductor/pianist Nadia Boulanger, mentor to Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass, among others. More importantly Madam Boulanger was the first woman to conduct major orchestras in Europe and America. Astor arrived with a bulging portfolio of music he’d written over the previous ten years, from chamber music to piano concertos as well as a handful of symphonies.
Born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires and dismissed as the music of pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals, the controversy surrounding tango was similar to that of jazz, which had its shady origins in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans.
Boulanger sat in a chair reading Piazzolla’s music for nearly five hours, leafing through page after page of notation while he watched, waiting, “sweating blood.” Finding his work “very well written,” Boulanger pointed out the obvious influence of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartok in Astor’s work. Dissatisfied with his lack of originality, she inquired into the nature of his true passion. Astor later admitted he feared that Boulanger might shove him out the window if he confessed his love for tango. But, to Piazzolla’s surprise, Boulanger begged him to play for her.
Just barely through the first piece, the maestra allegedly embraced her new student declaring, “This is Astor Piazzolla! This is the music you have to go on writing! Not that!” she said, pointing to his pile of compositions. “Throw that into the garbage.!” And so, he did, tossing ten years of work in the trash. While Piazzolla continued to compose classical and symphonic work, it always retained what he described as “a tango taste in it.”
“This is Astor Piazzolla! This is the music you have to go on writing! Not that!” she said, pointing to his pile of compositions. “Throw that into the garbage!” And so, he did, tossing ten years of work in the trash.
While in Paris, more inspiration struck unexpectedly in the form of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s Octet. The West Coast jazz man with the crewcut played with an understated cool, weaving smokey tonalities that put French audiences under a spell. Piazzolla and Mulligan would later join forces in the Fall of 1974, to record the stunningly hypnotic Summit album in Milan, Italy.
Astor Piazzolla & Gerry Mulligan, “Years of Solitude,” 1974, live in Italy:
Because their children were required to return to school, Dedé and Astor found themselves back in Buenos Aires in 1955. With “a virus of music” roiling inside him, Piazzolla quickly rounded up the best musicians available, formed his new octet and wrote more than 200 arrangements. At the same time, Argentine culture was changing fast. American rock ‘n’ roll, spearheaded by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley (who performed there in 1958) “pushed tango underground,” Piazzolla claimed. At the same time, Astor’s Nuevo Tango, with its fresh approach to harmony and rhythm began to snuff out the flame of Argentina’s tango tradition.
Progress did not come easy.
“In Argentina you could change hundreds of presidents, you could change religions, but you can’t change the tango,” Piazzolla proclaimed. “I don’t know why the government didn’t put me in jail. Maybe it’s because they are absolutely deaf. They didn’t recognize the message that I was giving the youth of Argentina, that the future of the tango is them and that’s why I am playing for them.”
Not only did Piazzolla topple the tango, but he began playing the bandoneón standing up, resting his right foot on a chair, while the instrument’s bellows stretched across his right thigh. Until Piazzolla, the bandoneón was only played sitting down. “I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” he declared. “But it was also about the sound, the tone. Like a singer, [or] a baritone sax player, you sound different, you phrase different, you breathe different, you sound stronger, when you stand.”
I don’t know why the government didn’t put me in jail. Maybe it’s because they are absolutely deaf. They didn’t recognize the message that I was giving the youth of Argentina, that the future of the tango is them and that’s why I am playing for them.
Shunned by traditional musicians, the radio refused to play his music, while the public largely treated him as persona non-grata. Worst of all, some lunatic tried dousing Piazzolla and his group with gasoline, attempting to set them all ablaze. Few have faced this kind of denigration over their musical innovations. In his early days in Los Angeles, Ornette Coleman had infuriated some “moldy fig” (as old-school jazz-heads were known) to the point that he yanked the saxophone from his hands and threw it under the wheels of an oncoming bus.
Despite having received the Argentine Government Medal, Piazzolla continued to endure insults hurled from passersby on the streets of Buenos Aires.
As Kip Hanrahan recalled: “Astor walked into the Argentine Consulate in New York, in May 1986, and awkwardly waiting to present him with the medal, at this stiff awards ceremony, was the same government bureaucrat who tried to exile him just a few years before. Astor refused to shake the bastard’s hand, making the guy hate him even more. He’s probably still working at the Consulate.
Some lunatic tried dousing Piazzolla and his group with gasoline, attempting to set them all ablaze.
“Astor was admired across Europe, Japan, and America,” Hanrahan pointed out. “So, the Argentine government had to acknowledge him, if for no other reason than to use some of his celebrity. [Today, the Mar del Plata International Airport bears Piazzolla’s name.] I think Astor saw and heard himself, in the music of people locked out of power, and the music that defiance represented. It wasn’t just the rhythms and tones of the African diaspora that Astor heard himself in, but in its sound of noble rebellion, of that proud defiance.”
While Piazzolla desired dignity and respect from his peers, he likened popularity with the general public to “hell. The worst thing that could happen to me is for 90 percent of the people to like my music. It would mean I’m going backwards.”
I think Astor saw and heard himself, in the music of people locked out of power, and the music that defiance represented. It wasn’t just the rhythms and tones of the African diaspora that Astor heard himself in, but in its sound of noble rebellion, of that proud defiance.
With his family in tow, Astor returned to New York in 1958, facing some lean years. At times he was forced to compromise his musical integrity to feed his family, who, according to Daniel, “ate rice four or five days a week.”
Following the death of his father, Astor wrote the mournful, soul stirring “Adios Nonino,” arguably his finest compositions to date.
“Adios Nonino”, original recorded version, 1974:
Soon after, he left his wife, “Dedé and their two teenaged children, giving no explanation beyond the cryptic excuse that he was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Creation and destruction were constants throughout Piazzolla’s life and music. Like the tumultuous Miles Davis, Astor relentlessly re-invented himself, focusing on the future, not just as a way of moving his music forward, but perhaps to keep his mind off the wreckage piling higher in his wake. By the mid ‘60s he once again bent the perimeters of traditional tango, adding percussion and jazzy drums to give his music a more dynamic edge.
Have you ever seen that hilarious photoshopped image of Jimi Hendrix playing the accordion? On November 28, 1975, Astor Piazzolla came as close as anyone to making that joke a reality when he presented his new Octeto Electrónico on Argentine national television. While stopping short of setting fire to his bandoneón, Piazzolla stood center stage in a loud striped shirt with a silk scarf tied at his throat, once again ushering the tango into unimagined realms. While Piazzolla’s compositions bore the mark of true originality, his fresh approach to weaving threads of ‘70s jazz fusion through tango, played on electric guitar, electric piano and synthesizer [think Chick Corea’s Return to Forever band] was simply unheard of in Argentina or anywhere else.
In July 1986, vibraphonist Gary Burton briefly joined Piazzolla’s Quintet at the Montreux Jazz Festival, adding his mercurial reverberation to Astor’s sonic pallet. Under-rehearsed and having to follow a long set by Miles Davis, the musicians nevertheless played a pristine set released by Atlantic Records the following year, dubbed The New Tango.
Kip Hanrahan first encountered Astor Piazzolla’s music in Europe in the 1970s. “The first time I heard his music, it was like ‘holy shit!’ The counterpoint, the implied dissonance… I thought it was great. But when I came back to America, the records weren’t available. So, on my next trip, I brought some records back from Paris.
“Astor’s closest friend since the early 1950s was the Argentine bebop guitarist Horacio Malvacino. Astor liked the idea of bebop, but he didn’t actually like the guitar. But he fit it into his band because the two were friends. Astor started playing with ‘Malvi’ after he returned from working with Madame Boulanger. But ‘Malvi’ pulled away a few times over the years because Astor could be… difficult. He was not necessarily the nicest guy in the world. But ‘Malvi’ used to say, ‘If Astor decides you’re one of the eight people in the world he can trust, you can’t get out of his orbit. He was like malaria!’ You can quit and try to get away from him and get on with your life, but three weeks later he would call. I found that out for myself, having quit working with him plenty of times. Astor barely slept. He was always anxious. He’d call you at two in the morning, from Japan or Austria. ‘Were you sleeping? Listen, I was thinking… We should start with a mid-tempo malanga…’ We used to play this joke on him. When he’d call me, or the guys in the band in the middle of the night, and say ‘Are you sleeping?’ We’d say, ‘Yes, I’m having this nightmare that Astor Piazzolla is calling me to ask if I’m sleeping!’ But he didn’t listen. He’d just go on and on… He would complain after every gig, no matter how great it was. It was always something, no matter how small… ‘The lights weren’t bright enough!’ Astor was on 24 hours a day. He’d insult you, never say thanks… but if you were in his orbit, you could never leave it. When I was in Europe. I was working with Horacio Malvacino Jr., ‘Malvi’s’ son, the sound engineer. Meeting his father was spectacular because he played on most of Astor’s earlier records. At that point I was getting a lot of press for my producing style, especially in France. Astor had actually read about it and ‘Malvi’ told him his son worked with me. So, we were playing a concert in Marseille with Jack Bruce and Andy Gonzalez, a horn section and five drummers and the audience went crazy. Afterwards he walked backstage and said, ‘I’m Astor Piazzolla, and Kip Hanrahan, you’re my new producer!’ But he didn’t hear anything, because he got there too late, which was really lucky, because that music was not his esthetic. I’m sure if he’d heard it, he would’ve hated it.”
Hanrahan would go on to produce two of Astor’s greatest albums. Originally released in September 1986, on Kip’s American Clave imprint Tango: Zero Hour featured Piazzolla’s New Tango Quintet, followed by 1988’s La Camorra.
“I never gave a fuck about the tango, and I don’t now!” Hanrahan declared. “When I listen to Astor, I’m not really listening to the tango re-imagined and saved by a brilliant composer, I’m listening to the music of a turbulent, complex, restless, brilliant man rearranging the vocabulary of his father’s dreams into sound.”
“A lot of people around Astor got fired or quit,” Hanrahan continued. “After hours, we’d have these fights, more often about art than money. And I’d say ‘Fuck you, I’m out! Get somebody else, man!’ And he’d say, ‘Fine, you’re fired! Kip, we’re not like oil and water, we’re like oil and fire! Goodbye! I never want to see you again, not even in a picture!’ And I’d go home, relieved. At last, there was time to rest and work on my own music. No more four-in-the-morning phone calls from the ‘Genius of Tango.’ But then the phone would ring in the middle of the night, or the next night, and it’d be Astor saying, ‘Kip, I was thinking…’
When I listen to Astor, I’m not really listening to the tango re-imagined and saved by a brilliant composer, I’m listening to the music of a turbulent, complex, restless, brilliant man rearranging the vocabulary of his father’s dreams into sound.
“While Astor was cold and self-centered, he could be surprisingly attentive at times, when he felt like it,” Kip explained. “He would listen to me and ask serious questions. But then he’d start to scream, ‘Whadda ya, drunk? You must be crazy or something! What the hell is this? It sounds like someone is being tortured in the next room.’ If he liked you, he would give you advice. Sometimes at interviews I would sit behind him, rolling my eyes and making fun of him, because I knew exactly what he was going to say. He often started his interviews saying, “They call me the Tango Assassin.” He knew it would make a good headline. He’d only marginally answer questions that journalists asked. My thing about doing interviews is that, even if I’d been asked the same questions before, it was a chance to rethink the answer, maybe more truthfully. Once Astor was with me when I did an interview for a French magazine. Afterwards he said, ‘What, are you nuts? You’re an idiot! You work too hard trying to find an answer. I give them the same answers every time and they love it. I never think about it. When I’m answering them, I’m wondering, ‘should I paint the kitchen?’ He was right. It was good advice and less work for the journalists. It was better than giving sprawling, self-contradictory answers.
“I used to tease Astor that he was my artistic father, and yeah, he warned me not to look for me in his will,” Kip joked. “But actually, I’m thrilled I wasn’t his artistic kid. I never had to work hard to solicit and then need to reject his approval for my own art. I was never lost in his immense and deep shadow. And no father could have talked so openly about sexual technique and in such detail. I could argue with him without being hurt by him refusing to admit when I’d been right. But no real son could ever say that.”
He often started his interviews saying, “They call me the Tango Assassin.” He knew it would make a good headline.
“Astor Piazzolla was a very close friend of my uncle, Oscar López, who played guitar for him. They lived one block apart in Buenos Aires, and were best friends, but they would fight a lot,” Argentine producer/recording engineer Pablo López Ruiz recalled with a chuckle. “I got the chance to go to all the rehearsals when the quintet got back together in 1978 after Octeto Electrónico ended. It was an extraordinary experience. I learned so much. I was just a kid, 17 or 18 at the time. Astor was so passionate… not the kind of guy you could tell ‘take it easy.’ He was very intense and knew exactly what he wanted. He was not democratic at all. He was a severe guy, a dictator! He was punk!” Pablo laughed. “But he was right… He would stop the music saying ‘No, no, no no…’ and show the musicians how to play the chords as he heard them – note by note. And when they’d begin again, the music was different. It was so incredible. The chemistry of the band, the energy was so perfect, as if God had touched it with his hands.
“I was very close to Pablo Ziegler [the jazz pianist who joined Astor’s quintet in 1978]. When they came to New York to record Tango: Zero Hour, I asked Pablo if I could come to the recording session. At the time, I was selling guitars at Alex Music on 48th Street [on “Music Row” in New York City]. Alex owned the recording studio where they were recording. I went to the sessions as a guest. You cannot make any opinions. You have to shut your mouth! It was a great experience. But something went wrong. Astor wasn’t happy with the sound of his bandoneón. It was too sharp. He liked a sweet sound, with a reverb, but not the ‘80s style. Most of my work has been producing records, mixing and mastering. I was almost born in a studio! My father, Jorge López Ruiz, was a double bass jazz player and a well-known arranger. He worked almost every day in the recording studio.”
“Pablo asked me what I thought about the sound. For me, it was very clear because I knew Astor’s music since I was four. At first, the sound was very open, panning-wise. The musicians needed to sit closer, to interact with each other. I don’t know how my suggestion got to Kip’s ears, or Astor’s ears. But Piazzolla was happy and expressed himself: ‘Yeah! That is how it should sound! The last two albums that he made with Kip are the best… classic records.”
He was very intense and knew exactly what he wanted. He was not democratic at all. He was a severe guy, a dictator! He was punk!
“Well, I was a kid! Arrogant and stupid. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time.” Hanrahan confessed. [Before working with Astor, Kip had already produced his own eclectic musical adventures as well as the jazz/blues gumbo Conjure featuring Taj Mahal, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley and Allen Toussaint improvising soundscapes for the poetry of Ishmael Reed.] “We’d been writing to each other for a year before we started doing Tango Zero. I got it in my head that this would be a major record for Astor, and I started telling him how we should sequence the album, based on each song’s tempo and feel. Astor was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? We didn’t think about making records the same way. There was a certain generational thing that guys like Astor and Teo Macero [Kip’s mentor and producer of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus records] had about the studio. It was more precious. Everything was magnified. There was a dimension of terror or intensity in recording. It was expensive. And whatever you did, that was it… forever, and everyone would hear it. That was different from how the next generation made records, where if you fucked up, you could always fix it. Teo was not convinced that you should put records out with all the mistakes, as if they are holy and the musicians meant to screw up. So, Teo would clean up Miles’ records. He’d go back and fix things.
“Even if it meant fighting with Astor furiously, I had to show him that a record didn’t have to be a collection of recorded documents of musicians in a room, playing music… That the real Astor Piazzolla record was an embodiment of his music, by using the studio as an instrument – the actual recording rooms, each with its own mood, the possibilities of tape editing, and the sequence of songs, to create of the whole intensity of his art. That, combined with the Quintet at the peak of its powers, made those records the victories they became.”
“It was not easy because Astor didn’t like to record,” Pablo López Ruiz said. “He didn’t like the studio at all. He liked to play live. He couldn’t stay quiet in the recording session. He was always moving all the time. Astor was a genius. I can’t explain the feeling of watching him play music. He was a great musician, whether playing piano or bandoneón. In Argentina they didn’t like his music, they used to wait for him at the door to the station when he was on the radio, to argue and fight with him.”
But Piazzolla was tough and could handle himself. This was a guy who enjoyed shark hunting for recreation. (Kip recalled, that if Astor liked you, he would reward you with a pair of shark jaws, which he found “disgusting and depressing.”)
Beyond all of the controversy and turmoil, it is important to emphasize the enormous love and devotion to Piazzolla’s music has inspired in many Argentines, perhaps best represented by this passionate response from a woman named Viviana Sosa on Youtube. (And I paraphrase…) “Libertango represents the resilience of Argentinian music. There is no time or place in the world or in life that it does not excite me to hear this work of art. Piazzolla, for you I returned, and I return a thousand times to my country. Your music has accompanied the most significant moments of my life. You will continue doing it, because I am Argentine, and I will die Argentine! Thank you!! A thousand times THANK YOU!!”
Piazzolla played his last concert in Greece on July 3, 1990, with the Athens Orchestra of Colours. A month later, on August 4, he had a stroke at his Paris apartment and was flown home to Buenos Aires while in intensive care. Although said to have never regained consciousness, Pablo recalled visiting Astor with his uncle Oscar. “He couldn’t talk. My uncle would talk to him and play music for him. We knew he could still feel it, even if he could not express himself. For me it was so sad. He seemed to get better… but then… he died on July 4, 1992. My uncle wrote a book about him full of funny anecdotes. The title says it all: Piazzolla… Loco, Loco, Loco. There was no stopping him!”
So, does the ghost of Astor Piazzolla, as it approaches its 100th birthday, still haunt Kip Hanrahan?
“He’s still in my system,” Kip confessed. “When I’m working on my music, or any music, he’s there sneering at me, showing contempt for any sign of fatigue and castigating me for being lazy and considering the easy angle, forcing me to make the difficult, and right choice. Fuck you, Astor! Could he be an asshole?” Hanrahan asks rhetorically. “He was really just protecting his music and art. He defended the truth with bared teeth and knives, if he felt the music was threatened by myopic businessmen, by limited musicians, by time, or whatever. He wasn’t always right about the threat, but the intent and passion of the defense was beautiful… Yeah, he’s still in my system, like malaria. But there is something intoxicating, and cleansing, about the fever.”