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.