Feb 14, 2013

Hugo Talks About Astor Piazzolla

My friend Hugo Wainzinger is a very talented guitarist, composer, and arranger, who also runs a recording studio here in Mountain View, California. I drop by his studio from time to time, to chat and to play some tunes. A couple of months ago, Hugo told me this story about the time he got to hang out with Astor Piazzolla. I asked him to tell it again and record it; here is the transcript. For more information about Hugo and his studio, please check the link at the end of this post.
In the early ‘70s, I was about 20, my mom was a singer in Buenos Aires; she was from Uruguay. At that time she was playing gigs in different nightclubs. One of the nightclubs she was playing was called “Caño Catorce.” Caño is like a conduit - number 14, that was the name of the place. It was kind of like a Village Vanguard in Buenos Aires, or Blue Note, for tango - mostly for tango. My mother was a melodic singer; she sang boleros, bossa novas, some tangos, some folklore from Argentina. There were other artists playing that night at that gig; among them was Astor Piazzolla, with his octet, or nonet, it depends who was available at that moment.

So the story is about a certain day, when my mother wanted me to accompany her to the rehearsal, or soundcheck, with the band. She was singing, and the accompanists were a trio - Carlos Garcia was name of the the pianist, who did the arrangements; he was a famous piano player in Argentina, also a tango musician, with two other people who I don’t recall.

I remember that the day I went there, Piazzolla was rehearsing his band, doing sound, and stuff like that. They were like halfway done, and they took a break. And during that break my mother was doing a sound check with her band. So I had the chance to talk with Piazzolla.

He saw me there sitting, and said, “Hola, pibe” - that means “Hey, kid” - “What are you doing here?” I said, “My mother is Rita Cortez, she’s the singer.” He said, “Oh, Rita, yeah, I know her very well, she’s a great singer. So you’re her son.” I said, “I’m one of them, we are five brothers and sisters.”

“So, do you like the music?” “Yeah, of course I like the music.” Actually that was kind of lying. I was into the Beatles. Anything that was not Beatles, or the Tremoloes, or Herman’s Hermits, or Emerson Lake and Palmer, or something like that, I was not really interested. Tango was number 248 on my priorities. Tango at that time was something that the elders - to me, that could be 30 or 40 years old - were listening to when they said, “kid, go play outside, we’re having a grown-up conversation.” So I associated tango music, even jazz music, with people I couldn’t talk to. I kind of put that music aside, you know, with no real reason, because I didn’t think of the greatness of the music at that moment, even less tango.

So Piazzolla was no different. I knew who Piazzolla was, but I didn’t know how big he was going to become, and how he was making his mark in Argentinian tango. He was a bandoneon player, but I didn’t know that he also was a great piano player. He studied with Nadia Boulanger, who told him that as a classical player...he should stick to tango, which is what he does best.

So he asked me if I liked the music, I said yes, I was lying. I said yes because I was afraid the he was going to slap me if I said “I don’t really care about your music.” Which was true. I didn’t care about tango, I didn’t care about boleros, I didn’t care about anything that wasn’t Beatles or pop music. So we started our conversation with a lie.

He asked me, “What kind of music do you like, besides the music that you say you like?” Well, I really liked the Beatles. I asked him what he thought about the Beatles. He told me that it was a fad, like Chuck Berry, like Little Richard. Which he was listening to, of course, because it was on the radio - radio was the most important thing happening back then, for promotion.

He started talking about what tango is. He had played in the orchestra of a famous bandoneon player, Anibal Troilo, very famous in Argentina; Piazzolla had been one of his principal bandoneon players. Piazzolla strayed from playing with that formation, and from what he had been doing with his own groups, playing music - with a different dynamic for what the tango will be. The formal time signature of the tango is 2/4, in Spanish “el dos por cuatro,” That’s a famous phrase: “el dos por cuatro” means tango no matter what, in Argentina.

So he strayed from the original form of the tango, instead of a basic rhythm of straight quarter notes, going
That’s actually what he changed in the tango. The purists of tango were disgusted, they didn’t want the tango to be altered the way Piazzolla altered it. And then, because of Piazzolla’s classical education, he put a lot of aspects of classical music into what tango became, but of course still based on popular dynamics and melodies. 
Our conversation went from, at first, very superficial...our conversation lasted around two and a half hours, over many little cups of cafe. Like, you know, espressos, but we just call them cafe.

He said that over time, I would change my mind about tango, because I would start appreciating the construction of the melodies, the richness of the lyrics, the stories. Many tangos have stories based on romance, breakups - tango is a sort of Argentinian blues, so to speak. But also many laughable situations, humorous, also social commentary and social critiques. He was explaining all that to me, and with a lot of authority.

He went into many details that at the time I didn’t understand. He was talking about the minor aspect of certain songs, like how when you go from A minor to E/Ab, the descending progression of chords, that conveys abandonment or depression - he went into the graphic, and the coloring aspect of music. And then he told me, “You will remember this conversation for the rest of your life.” I thought to myself, “Who do you think you are?” Well, life and history showed me that he was right; he was a preeminent composer in the world.

Of course, he was a wonderful bandoneon player. I’m sure that he could play other instruments, but at that time I never saw him play other instruments, except the piano. He was going over a phrase with one of his band members; he was playing really great piano. I don’t know what his training was on piano, but he mentioned Nadia Boulanger as one of his big influences on the character of what he developed later. One of the things he said was, “You don’t need anybody to tell you how good you are. You know how good you are, just go for it.” He didn’t need anyone’s opinion, and one of the things he said was, “You don’t like my music? Go and f__ off.” He was pretty assertive, adamant in the way he conducted himself. He could be pretty nice, but pushy at times, and somebody who, it felt like a hurricane going over you, with his opinions about stuff. When I left the conversation, he had to go, and I was still with my mom, it was about noon. We went for lunch to a restaurant close by, because the club only served dinner for the shows, they didn’t serve lunch. I had the feeling that I probably would remember this through the years, I didn’t know why.

I started liking tango later in life, when I was around thirty. I started listening to tango with more attention, caring about how well-crafted the melodies were, hearing some tangos that I hadn’t known existed. I really learned how to appreciate it.

Piazzolla, of course, is probably the most well-known tango exponent in the world, besides Carlos Gardel, who was the most famous singer. But I think for the rest of the world, if you mention any of the classic Argentinian tango composers, they will not remember them; probably they will remember Piazzolla. That was the guy who made himself more famous by playing with “who’s who” everywhere.

He was rather pleasant to me, paternal, kind of. He was like that with his musicians, people he was conducting at the moment.

There was only one occasion when I saw him live, at Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires. His repertoire was 100% his compositions; he was playing just Piazzolla, with his nonet. It was many years later, when he developed into the electronic - he was actually the creator of the electronic tango. He had electric guitar, drums, synthesizers, and stuff like that.

Actually, I happen to be a Facebook friend with his son, Daniel Piazzolla, who lives in Villa La Angostura in Argentina. Sometimes I’ll make a comment, he laughs at it. He remembers what I was talking about, we have some comments back and forth.

Here are some links:

Hugo's website

La Casita de mis Viejos, one of several great Youtube videos with pianist Carlos Garcia

Libertango, one of Piazzolla's most famous pieces

You can find plenty more Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Garcia, Anibal Troilo, and Daniel Piazzolla on Youtube.

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