Vibist Gary Burton and Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla enjoyed a professional and personal friendship that lasted over two decades. Despite substantial differences in origin, approach, instrumentation, and choice of idiom, their friendship resulted in some remarkable musical collaborations. The two musicians initially met in the mid-’60s, when Burton was on tour in South America with Stan Getz; in the years that followed, they performed and recorded together periodicallydespite maintaining schedules that seldom saw them together in the same city, let alone on the same continent.
At the 1986 Montreaux Festival, the duo cut one of the most outstanding and most surprising releases of the ’80s, The New Tango (Atlantic). They planned a reunion date for several years, but it never happened: Piazzolla dissolved his group in 1991, then suffered a fatal heart attack a year later. Still, his impact on Burton was so great that the younger musician never abandoned the idea of once again playing his friend’s music. That dedication has culminated in the release of Burton’s newest recording, Astor Piazzolla Reunion (Concord).
While on paper it might seem that Burton and Piazzolla wouldn’t mesh effectively, they certainly shared some common ideas. At different points in their careers, each man was attacked by purists for allegedly violating traditions and conventions. Burton, today regarded among the finest technicians in jazz history, established himself in the late ’60s as a distinctive, dexterous, and versatile soloist able to incorporate country, rock, pop, and classical influences into his music without sacrificing improvisational zeal or edge. But in spite of his skill and his dedication to jazz, Burton has been tagged as overly cerebral and rhythmically lean by some fans and critics.
Though he was born in Argentina, Astor Piazzolla spent his formative years in New York City before returning home in 1938 to work with Anibal Troilo’s orchestra. A master of the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument with a darker, more lush sound, he made his solo debut in 1944. For the next half a century, Piazzolla continually turned the tango world upside down. He added an acoustic bass to his group and incorporated walking lines into his material, a tactic that horrified hardcore tango lovers used to light, feathery bowed accompaniment. He utilized classical passages, throwing in flashy solos featuring jazz violin or bandoneon. He wrote songs with abrupt tempo shifts, infuriating tango dancers who demanded a steady beat from beginning to end.
During much of his career, Piazzolla was often ridiculed in his homeland, but things changed dramatically for him in the ’80s. In 1986, he and Burton cut The New Tango, while his own group release, Zero Tango Hour (Panagea), turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic. No more would Piazzolla’s fellow countrymen claim that he had perverted the tango: Such selections as “Tanguedia” and “Michelangelo” adhered to the tango’s customary format, but they sizzled with such fire and zest that the record caught the attention of listeners who’d never cared for the tango before. Toward the end of his life, Piazzolla went into virtual exile in Paris, where he died in the midst of writing a lengthy new work that was to expand once again the horizons of his beloved tango.
Astor Piazzolla Reunion stands as a first-rate testament to Piazzolla’s music and impact. Burton recruited several longtime Piazzolla band members, among them guitarist Horacio Malvicino, violinist Fernando Suarez-Paz, and bassist Hector Console, along with pianist Nicolas Ledesma. He tabbed both Marcelo Nisinman and Daniel Binelli for bandoneon duties. The former player proves particularly adept at faster numbers like “Caliente” and “Lunfardo,” while the latter is more proficient at softer pieces such as “Biyuya” and “Romance Del Diablo.”
Still, it’s Burton’s brilliance that holds things together, along with Suarez-Paz’s shimmering violin support. On “Soledad,” “Caliente,” and “Decarisimo,” Burton’s vibes solos are so intense and fiery that the backing players struggle to match his power. Other times, especially on “Tanguedia” and “Romance Del Diablo,” the collection reaffirms the tango as the world’s sexiest music, with soothing, almost aching melodies, beautiful violin passages, and equally arresting vibes and bandoneon solos. The group interaction here rivals that of the finest traditional New Orleans or Afro-Cuban ensembles, and Burton again debunks the criticism that his playing lacks emotion or energy.
The final selection, “Mi Refugio,” reteams Burton and Piazzolla by way of electronics, and it shows just how magical the Burton/Piazzolla duo sounded in concert. Piazzolla’s whirling bandoneon shifts and statements are nimbly countered and anticipated by Burton, who nicely varies his tone, volume, and pace without ever overriding or clashing with his onetime collaborator. This is timeless, magnificent music that should move all music lovers, regardless of what conceptions they may have about the tango.
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