Of Tango, Bluegrass, and surf Music...

A Record Reviewer Catches Up On His Backlogged Mail

The Complete American Clav'e Recordings

Astor Piazzolla

Rounder Records

The passing of Argentinean bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla in 1990 received little attention beyond the tango world; there were no full-page New York Times obituaries, none of the countless magazine retrospectives that followed the deaths of Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Zappa.

Indeed, the bandoneon (an instrument similar to the accordion, but more challenging to play and used almost exclusively in tango music) is not an instrument with mass appeal, and Latin-American tango music...well, let's just say that it's not suprising that Piazzolla doesn't have the same sort of following that Prince has.

However, if there was any justice in the world, the name Piazzolla would have a secure place in the pantheon of twentieth-century musical masters. And this three-CD collection of Piazzolla's American Clave recordings (Tango: Zero Hour, from 1986, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, from 1987 and La Camorra: La Soledad De La Provocacion Apasionada from 1989; the set is distributed through Cambridge's very own Rounder Records) serves as a beautiful testament to Piazzolla's genius, featuring almost three hours of some of the most haunting, searching, intensely emotional music of this century.

Kip Hanrahan, in the liner notes to this set, writes that there "are few other cases in modern music of a musician inheriting a musical tradition [tango] growing so moribund in its structure and mannerisms, and growing so stiff in its political implications and social function, who so singlehandedly transformed it into a breathing, complex, sensual and powerful music." Even such generous praise is understated; Piazzolla's impact and importance reach far beyond his work in and influence on tango, moving towards a redefinition of the depths of the emotion that can be reached through music.

From the eerie, lurching dissonance of "Tanguedia III," the first track on Tango: Zero Hour, these discs are true gems. Incidentally, Piazzolla said of Tango: Zero Hour that "[t]his is absolutely the greatest record I've made in my entire life. We gave our souls to this record." It's hard to argue: Tango: Zero Hour combines excitement and full-bodied intensity with a series of lush, mournful tunes that are as painfully beautiful as anything on vinyl.

The American Clave recordings showcase every aspect of Piazzolla's brilliance; it is hard to imagine a music lover of any sort who would not immediately fall in love with the erotic sensibility and impassioned brilliance displayed on these albums. By the time you get to the mournful "Sur: Regreso Al Amor," the last track on La Camorra, (a tune which is a perfect illustration of just how much contemporary avant-guard American artists like Tom Waits have drawn from Piazzolla's work) you will have gone on an aural journey with one of the twentieth century's true musical geniuses.

And as the man says: "Suffer, motherfucker, this is the tango."

Tribute to Miles

Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony

Williams/Wallace Roney/Wayne Shorter

Qwest Records

Self-respecting jazz lovers easily fall into the trap of bypassing the plethora of jazz tribute albums that have been released recently (heck, two tributes to pianist Bill Evans have come out in the past month alone) in order to focus on what is being produced that is new and fresh. The trouble is, such a person would miss out on a lot of great music: Joe Henderson's last two albums, Keith Jarrett's recent tribute to Miles Davis, Bye Bye Blackbird, Tiger Okoshi's homage to Louis Armstrong, Echoes of a Note, and now, this scorching new set that features four musicians who played with Miles and one who didn't, but admires him anyway. This young trumpet player, Wallace Roney, plays with startling clarity and supreme confidence.