Here comes Big Band Tango

The pianist and composer Emilio Solla and his latest tango-jazz album, Puertos

Emilio Solla’s new CD, Puertos.

Emilio Solla is a very busy man; trying to schedule an interview with him feels like chasing after a hurricane. One day he’s performing on the West Coast, the next time in a tiny town in upstate New York, then he’s recording a new album, performing with his own group – the Trio Solla-Cheek-Labro – or he’s working on a video as part of a fundraising campaign for his next project. And then there’s so much more: teaching, composing a musical, promoting, and creating new possibilities; this Argentine-born pianist and composer seems like a creative volcano.

When we finally manage to get together on a late October afternoon in one of Manhattan’s busy coffee shops, he wants to talk about the release of his latest album, Puertos: Music of International Waters. As it happens, the album, a crossover between tango and jazz, is being publicly played for the first time on New York’s WDNA station at the very moment we sit down to talk. He’s visibly disappointed to miss such an important moment, but nevertheless has decided to put our prior arrangement first. He orders a ‘redeye’ (for beginners: coffee with a shot of espresso) and not surprisingly admits that his coffee consumption is somewhat above the amount recommended by doctors.

“At this stage in my life it’s ‘pum pum’,” he says, underlining his statement with a vigorous snap of his fingers. The recording of Puertos for which he managed to engage seventeen top musicians took only about ten months “…from the first thought to the finish of the album.” And it took only one phone call to Lincoln Center — and the concert with his big band was a done deal.

Emilio Solla conducting his New York big band.

Emilio Solla is widely recognized for his own expressive style. He successfully combines two music genres: modern tango and jazz. His previous album, Second Half, a studio recording, received a Grammy nomination in 2015 for Best Latin Jazz Album. Puertos is Solla’s eleventh album as band leader and represents a continuation of his tango-jazz style, but on a much larger scale.

Having pulled together a tango-jazz orchestra of this size alone is a huge achievement. It consists of a number of highly acclaimed international musicians from Cuba, Hungary, USA, Canada, France, Columbia, Uruguay, Mexico, and Argentina. Many readers may recognize names such as bass player Pablo Aslan, pianist Arturo O’Farrill or Edmar Castañeda on harp. Why did he get involved with such a big orchestra for this album?, I want to know. “The big band is a standard institution in the USA,” he explains. Tango sextets on the other hand are restricted by arrangements, he continues, but with a big band there are almost unlimited possibilities.

Each track of Puertos is named for one of the major ports around the world that saw a lot of immigration around the end of the nineteenth century – and as such captures some of the flavor of that particular place. For example, while the opening track, Sol La, a Sol (dedicated to Havana), has the rhythmic elements of Cuban music, the piece Chacafrik (dedicated to Benguela, the major port in Angola) has a distinctly African feel, and the closing piece, Buenos Aires Blues (for New Orleans), features an unusual bandoneon solo. Each piece has a specific atmosphere. What they have in common is a Latin-tinged feel and the overall sadness of tango. Many pieces include a bandoneon. Beyond that, the album has actually little to do with tango as danced in tango milongas – except perhaps that tango is representative of the mix of immigrants that arrived in ports all around the world, contributing to what tango has become: a constantly evolving style of music.

Solla, who was born in Mendoza, Argentina, grew up with tango, but like many of his generation in Argentina didn’t think much of it. Then he discovered Piazzolla and his revolutionary new way of playing tango. From that moment on “…we all wanted to sound like Piazzolla,” he remembers. “He was the man!” It was the discovery of Piazzolla that pushed him to jazz. Among the people he started to admire most were Miles Davies, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, while in the tango world Juan d’Arienzo, Osvaldo Pugliese and Anibal Troilo are still among his favorites.

Solla received his degree in classical piano at the National Conservatory of Music in Buenos Aires, and his MA in Jazz Composition at Queens College in New York. He further studied composition, arranging, counterpoint, improvisation, and conducting. Then he moved to Barcelona where he met his wife, and returned with her to New York where they’ve been living since 2006. He teaches at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and is involved in different projects in New York City. Solla’s work and career are so extensive, that it’s impossible to capture him in only a few sentences. With his typical sense of humor, he calls himself ‘pianist / music inventor’ and on his website he offers two versions of his bio. The short version reads: “He studied. He composed. He performed. Currently, he keeps studying, composing, and performing.”

Emilio Solla is a classically trained pianist and composer. Tango and Jazz is what he loves to combine.

Although on the one hand a highly acclaimed modern composer who takes tango-jazz to new heights, he also enjoys playing with his tango quartet for dancers at milongas around New York. (He played with Pablo Aslan at the Zinc Bar in New York for four years.) Observing the crowd and the dance floor from his piano, he says he loves to communicate and make people dance. Admittedly a poor dancer himself, he tries to connect with the audience, proving that even Piazzolla can be danced. “I play exactly like Piazzolla,” he claims. “The dancers love it. It’s for the dancers.” Playing pieces such as the Milonga Del Ángel is “the reason to be a musician.”

What annoys him is when tango musicians play for themselves, not paying attention to the dancers. He also gets upset when he talks about the kind of arrogance of some classical musicians that results – as he puts it – from a lack of understanding of tango. Somewhat bitterly he reflects upon a concert with Daniel Barenboim playing tango in Buenos Aires. To him it seemed as if Barenboim, the Argentine-born star of the classic music world, had not prepared the piano parts properly, since he made many mistakes playing the piano introduction to Adiós Nonino.

Puertos: Music of International Waters, Solla’s latest album, has just been submitted for a nomination for a Grammy Award. “Keep your fingers crossed for November 20,” he says excitedly. That’s the day the nominees are announced. If chosen, the album will not only be another highlight in an already stellar career, but will also be a valuable and hugely enjoyable addition to the listening pleasure of all music lovers, whether they be tangueros, jazz fans, or simply music lovers. And a remarkable addition to the contemporary music scene.

Fotos courtesy of Emilio Solla.

So what’s with the bandoneon?

The tone always comes out where you don’t expect it!

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New bandoneon by Belgium maker Harry Geuns.

When I first heard the sound of a dozen bandoneons playing together, I was blown away. It was at the Stowe Tango Music Festival where, at the end of a weeklong bandoneon workshop, the students performed for tango dancers. They played together with the other musicians of a grand tango orchestra: violin, viola, cello, piano and double bass. The bandoneons made the orchestra sound like force of nature. My ears perked up, I stopped my conversation, and leaned towards the stage. I had heard the bandoneon countless times, unwittingly anticipating its characteristic sound in many tango pieces. But this time I was completely unprepared for the gripping sound of twelve bandoneons playing together. It grabbed me from within, sending shivers down my spine on that warm August night. I felt the same excitement that so many tango lovers must have felt before me.

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Tango wins a Grammy!

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Grammy winners Héctor Del Curto, Pablo Ziegler and Claudio Ragazzi (Photo: STOWE TANGO MUSIC FESTIVAL)

 

On January 28 the tango world was rocked by a major event: the Pablo Ziegler Trio’s album, Jazz Tango, won the 2018 Grammy Award as best Latin Jazz Album. It was the first time that tango was awarded a prize by the Recording Academy — and the first time the larger music world became aware of the importance of a genre it had previously regarded as marginal. I spoke with bandoneonist Héctor Del Curto — who, together with pianist Claudio Ragazzi and founder Pablo Ziegler, completes the Pablo Ziegler Trio — about winning the Grammy Award. Héctor is one of the most sought-after bandoneonists, having played with Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla among others. Héctor and his wife Jisoo Ok are also the founders of the Stowe Tango Music Festival.

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‘Life on the road’ with María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer

María, the singer, and María, the van
María, the singer, with María, the van

 

‘María De Buenos Aires’ it says in black letters on the van. It’s an older model, but well cared for and trust inspiring. All the important parts, such as its shiny wheels and fenders, look new and expensive. White, compact, and sturdy, it has been converted into some kind of multi-purpose mobile home/trailer. The initial passenger space now serves as a tiny stage dressing room or, if needed, as a bedroom. There is a clothes rack with stage costumes, a vanity, and everything the artist needs to transform herself for a grand appearance. This past year there were thirty-three of them in five months.

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Teaching Liam Neeson

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There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com

 

“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

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Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla

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Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox

 

When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

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The El V Story

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The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.

 

“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

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Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

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For some quiet time after tango: the beaches by Fort Bragg.

On a recent flight from the East Coast to California I was sitting next to a top commander of the Coast Guard West Coast. He engaged me in a long and lively conversation about assignments that have taken him around the world, and how he and his wife — a modern and tap dancer — enjoy traveling and exploring. When I told him how my tango dancing has taken me to various places, a surprised look came over his face and he told me how they had just stumbled upon a ‘tango house’ in the middle of nowhere, on a trip up the Pacific coast to Fort — he couldn’t remember the rest of the name, so I finished it for him — Fort Bragg, the Weller House Inn.

He looked even more surprised. Most of my tango friends in the Bay Area have been to the Weller House, I explained. Indeed, I might be the only member of the entire tango community between Portland and Los Angeles who has not been to a tango event at this historic mansion. The tango world is small, I went on coolly, news spreads quickly and tango people travel far to explore exotic and fun places.

But inwardly I cringed, scolding myself for still not having been there.

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Tango with an Ice Champion

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Evelyn Meier as a young ice skater

Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.

One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.

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