Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla

Maria Susana Azzi and Simon Collier (Oxford University Press)

Historically, the tango has been at least as resistant to change as church music -- odd, given that the former was born in the whorehouses of Argentina, the one place you'd think anything goes. Not so, as Astor Piazzolla discovered in the '60s when tweaking the rigid dance music's format resulted in death threats, cab drivers refusing him rides and a fistfight with a well-known conservative tango singer.

His crimes? He incorporated American jazz and European classical elements into the half-century-old tango style, irreverently increased the number of musicians from a quartet to an octet, and invented new instruments and sounds into the mix. Equally bad, he dropped the reverential break between movements, intentionally turned the tango from dance music into chamber music by complicating the form -- and, God help us, played while standing, rather than sitting, with one foot on the chair. That these changes would catapult his music into the realm of the avant-garde proves to what extent the tango had been held sacred. In this new biography, one associate refers to him as "little Lucifer" and another suggests Satan With a Bandoneon as a title for this book.

Fortunately, the engrossing book is void of perfunctory, dry, childhood-era prefacing: Following birth, Piazzolla is yanked from Argentina into the musical environments and influences of New York City and Paris. Readers even slightly familiar with Piazzolla's outlaw status will immediately anticipate the tradition hitting the fan as the young bandoneonist (a form of accordion) works his way back to Buenos Aires. Fifty pages into this 300-page book, both the reader and Piazzolla are well in the thick of things.

Authors Azzi and Collier, the former a board member of both the Astor Piazzolla Foundation and the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires, steer us through the lengthy gauntlet of musical, religious, political and family figures with whom Piazzolla clashed during his 70 years. Piazzolla becomes the personification of the tango, the ultimate expression of passion: We're told how he once confronted his singer's wealthy rancher husband and boldly insisted on divorce so they could marry -- an incident that made headlines in Argentina's tabloids. Piazzolla's courting trouble nearly becomes a theme of the book, with him often outright gleeful when his work incites indignation and poor reviews.

Le Grande Tango builds on an unusual world: The Argentine culture is unfamiliar to most of us, its embrace of tradition is appallingly extreme and the minimal influence of the tango on stateside music keeps Piazzolla's artistic struggles a foreign battle. All of it makes the era and art scene against which Piazzolla rebels as intriguing as the rebel himself.

 
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