Two to Tango

By Greg Cahill

Yo Yo Ma Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla Sony Classical

Various Artists The Tango Lesson Sony Classical

IT’S MILONGA TIME. From the bars of Buenos Aires to the concert halls of America, audiences throughout this century have embraced the tango. Actually, the roots of the tango–burning with Latin passion and driven by swirling, erotic rhythms–reach back to the music of African slaves and black Cubans who brought their indigenous sound to Buenos Aires, where it mixed with the European polka and the mazurka to form the basis for this romantic dance music.

In the 1920s, the late Argentinean bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla transformed the tango, blending jazz and symphonic influences to create complex instrumentals pulsating with danger and raw intensity. For his trouble, he was exiled from his native land–the Argentineans frown upon those who dare mess with this national institution, though the tango later got more than its share of rockification in the ’60s and ’70s.

America’s love affair with the tango in recent years has coincided with Argentina’s own search for the true tango sound.

On Soul of the Tango, classical cellist Yo Yo Ma pays tribute to Piazzolla and turns the tables, so to speak, by fleshing out the classical elements while focusing on the more lyrical, serene side of his brilliant songs. While Ma’s inspired covers lack the dramatic and often dissonant throb that characterized Piazzolla’s most ambitious works (including several that drew their inspiration from the steely stiletto bravura of the mean streets of Buenos Aires), he lovingly caresses Piazzolla’s beautiful melodies and retains the sense of adventure that permeated so many of the late master’s compositions.

Ma also contributes an energized rendering of Piazzolla’s classic “Libertango” to the soundtrack of The Tango Lesson, the latest film from director Sally Potter (Orlando). The movie tells the story of an ambitious female filmmaker who places herself under the tutelage of an Argentinean tango dancer. Potter calls it “a distillation of my own experiences . . . perilously on the knife edge between reality and fiction.”

The 20 tracks–interspersed by haunting instrumental interludes composed by Potter–are mostly original recordings selected by some of the masters of tango composition and arrangement, and played by some of Argentina’s greatest musicians and bandleaders. The collection is a richly rewarding overview of the best that tango has to offer. Highly recommended.

Joe Henderson Porgy & Bess Verve

IN SEARCH OF another tribute to match his acclaimed homages to Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim, jazz tenor great Joe Henderson perused the George Gershwin songbook and set his sights on the classic Broadway hit Porgy & Bess, which gets a big post-bop blast from the sax legend. The result is pure joy, though I have to wonder about the decision to include Sting’s tepid vocal on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Chaka Khan’s sultry reading of “Summertime,” on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise). Sterling solos and able accompaniment by guitarist John Scofield, trombonist Conrad Herwig, pianist Tommy Flanagan, and vibist Stefon Harris, make this a sure bet for jazz fans looking for stocking stuffers.

Old & in the Way Breakdown: Original Live Recordings, 1973, Vol. II Acoustic Disc

EVERYONE WHO ever fell under the spell of Panama Red knows that it just doesn’t get any better than Old & in the Way–the short-lived but legendary bluegrass gathering of Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. This is the second volume of outtakes released by Grisman’s San Rafael-based label from the 1973 Boarding House in San Francisco sessions that spawned that one-off album. As the title suggests, it’s a chance to hear these talented players stretch out on their instruments while basking in the glow of their high and lonesome vocals. Kick back on the back porch of your mind with this treasure–an absolute must for lovers of American music.

From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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