The recent Capetown International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) was given a special treat – a resurrection of grandmaster Astor Piazolla’s ‘New Tango’ with a special twist by grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazolla who loves the Afro-Caribbean claves rhythms set to a Tango mood.
Grandfather Astor Piazolla has been considered as Argentina’s most celebrated composer and bandoneonist of the ‘New Tango’ which did not include a singer, but wedded improvisational jazz and classical music together. Two generations later, grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazolla and his merry Escalandrum sextet band have put aside the traditional bandoneon and violin of former tango years, and added singer, Elena Roger, and a three-horn section plus drum kit.
Their intention is to promote the sounds of their city, Buenos Aires, which reigns with the tango, but continue to fuse the delightful urban swing with some complicated improvisation techniques, particularly using the sonorous, multi-ranged bass clarinet, a rarity in contemporary jazz. Pipi says his grandfather hated the dancing that went with his-day tango. “People should listen, not dance, to tango,” Pipi agrees.
They love their city of Buenos Aires as well as sharks. “Escalandrún” is the Argentinian name for a sand shark, the favourite marine animal of the Piazolla family who fish sharks. One song performed at the Jazz Festival was composed by drummer Pipi to honour sharks. It was a stunningly haunting piece with the bass clarinet making sonic images of whale and dolphin calls, low rumbles conveying feelings of dark sea depths, and other primordial sounds, even imitating the dirigidoo.
Their performance at CTIJF this year was their first on African soil. ‘Pipi’ felt there were so many similarities between African rhythms and the tango that they hope to continue more collaborations as Escalandrum perfects their own new age tango improvisations.
During my interview with the sextet of large and well-built men, Pipi explained that in 2001, when a crisis in Argentina caused many to leave the country, he and his merry men stayed (his musical buddies formed Escalandrum in 1999); they felt the pressure to change the folkloric tango and offer uplifting music for their depressed fellow citizens. Hence, an emphasis on the milonga 5/4 odd meter beats. “We were more socially inspired than political because the country wasn’t stable. We searched in ourselves; our ages influenced us: when young we just wanted to play bebop, but as we grew older the mind opened up to other inspiring rhythms. Everybody was running away, but we wanted to stay here.”
We talked about why Escalandrum was fusing more with Afro-Cuban music. “The Latin milongas go well with our own folkloric traditions in Argentina: the chacarera and malambo rhythms in 6/8, the sambo in ¾, and as jazz musicians, we love rhythms.” Then, why did they move away from the accordion? “The bandoneon is more difficult to adapt to the improvisational jazz approach which we want to move forward. In Argentina and particularly in Buenos Aires, we are a melting pot of cultures so we don’t stick to one traditional sound, but branch out and absorb others which have influenced us – like African, North American, and Cuban music. The bandoneon has actually saved our music, and made it original, but there is other original music we can continue to produce. “
And what was that about Mozart, I asked? “A festival producer wanted us to bring our interpretation of Mozart in Piazolla form to a festival, as an art form. Those people interested in classical music were willing to let us be free with our presentations, which is good. We brought on one of our best classical musicians who also was our teacher and also taught my grandfather, and we performed with only two microphones – very stereophonic. It was one recording with no mixing, and is available. It was quite a challenge, however, to play Mozart and Piazolla together!
Escalandrum’s Latin Grammy-winning album, “Piazolla Plays Piazolla”, explains so eloquently and sonorously the dimensions and styles which their contemporary music is using. Produced in 2011, the album is excitingly polyrhythmic, thanks to the many clave beats grounded in Afro-Cuban/Caribbean varieties. Each band member has composed songs and infused his own sounds to make this album multi-spirited and innovative.
‘Tanguedia 1” sounds like an angry retort against the flimsy tango dancing people, unsupported by Escalandrum’s style of tango. “Fuga 9” implants a classical flare which contorts into horn-pronounced resolution, followed by a boppish piano trio which seeks to calm down the protesting horns. This is a well improvised piece, full of jazzic twists that return to the fundamental Piazolla beat.
“Romance del Diablo” starts with low key bass clarinet paired with melodic saxes morphing into a surprising ballad honouring the devil. Here, the horns spell diabolic images romancing themselves, a winner!
It’s this fusion of the at-times cacophonic improvisation (as in ‘Buenos Aires Hora Cero’), mellow ballad moods, and standard jazz bop, which permits the re-entry of that notorious tango rhythm into the sonicsphere, that keeps one’s ears eagerly plugged to the band’s conversations. “Adios Nonino” does this nicely, resolving into a beautiful, almost mournful, song.
One learns the wide range of the bass clarinet, so expertly played by Martin Pantyrer, which successfully establishes frameworks for both mood and message.
The beats keep changing between 5-4 time, then the clave 3-2 time, and so on, but the fundamental 4/4 time sounds come from Pipi’s clave, that five-stroke pattern that is at the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms. The album ends with a stunning drum solo by Pipi in ‘Libertango’ that fuses, again, with the basic tango sound and seems to heal and free up the spirit.
Pipi explains what influences him: “The Uruguayan–African influences have molded the Milongo and malambo mixtures which are heard, such as the 5/4 time. Also, every night I watch YouTube music videos to find something new and interesting. Then in the morning, I try to practice what I heard and explore different sounds.” Pianist Nicholas Guerschberg says he tries to find new music and ideas and styles so he can play different originals. The latest project is to combine Mozart with our tango!” Escalandrum’s latest album, “SesionesION:Obras de Mozart y Ginastera”, recorded in mid-2016, was released January 4, 2017.
They do sound like friends who have hung out together since youth, who decided to put their talents together into a band in 1999. Escalandrum has traveled extensively since, winning awards as they merge the Argentinian rhythmic styles more and more with the Afro-Caribbean Latin influences. Hence, sounds of conga, son, mambo, and salsa spice up their forward-sounding tango and other globally-influenced rhythms. This is rhythmic excitement at its best!