For all connections between tango and jazz, there is also a dividing line: improvisation is essential to jazz. There is no improvisation in tango. Tango is a music of arrangers. But while there is no jazz-style improvising in tango, the music does have a tradition that dates to the 1910s. It’s what tango musicians call “tocar a la parrilla” (“to play on the grill”). It means playing without written arrangement. When playing a la parrilla, the players don’t stray far from the melodies or the harmonies of the song, but they do take some liberties and offer their own variations and embellishments. They don’t have the intentions of a jazz improviser – but their practice is not that far from those in early jazz.
So New York-based bassist, bandleader and producer Pablo Aslan, jazz musician and pioneer in a new musical hybrid known as tango-jazz, picks classic, but generally lesser known tangos, and goes to Buenos Aires. There he calls on a group of exceptional music veterans, some of them tango players, others with jazz experience, and puts them in a recording studio. They are playing off little more than his directions and lead sheets. Pablo forces them to draw from their imagination, and their thousand nights in tango dance clubs and jam sessions. Not much of a stretch in jazz, but it was a huge dare in tango. The result is “Tango Grill.”
The repertoire is true, Saturday-night-neighborhood-milonga - true. (Milonga refers to a pre-tango music style, but also to a dancing event, usually at a neighborhood club, union hall or a cafe.) The sound is classic, at times hard, rough-edged, at times almost sentimental, always with an attitude. The playing is smart, knowing, and confident, and full of surprising rabbit-hole turns. One moment tradition is behind us, the next, it’s before us. “Tango Grill” is tango looking at itself in a jazz mirror. “Sometimes I was tempted to write an arrangement, deciding beforehand how a song would sound,” says Aslan. “But finally I stuck to the idea that we were going to make the music in the studio, out of contributions of every musician. This also helped decide the final list of songs. I wanted a repertoire of classics that any tango musician would know, but perhaps not the most familiar to the general audience. This is a tango musician’s repertoire.”
Some of the songs were re-harmonized, a common practice in jazz, “but in general we left the original harmonies. In jazz we re-harmonize to give the improviser more choices, but in tango this is dangerous because one can lose the essence of the melody. Also, with more chords, one can lose the rhythmic pulse. Finding the exact measure of how much jazz harmonies and melodies can be mixed before tango loses its essence is the great challenge in tango-jazz.”
To listen past the obvious -- the addition of trumpet and drums, some jazz-style blowing -- is to find a wealth of unexpected possibilities within the tradition. The ensemble playing in El Amanecer, a song written in the 1920s, is a nod to the classic sound of the Quinteto Real, a tango institution a la MJQ in jazz. “Our bandoneonist, Nestor Marconi, was a member of the group for many years. What was interesting to me was to find that everybody else in the group not only knew and admired the Quinteto Real, but also knew how to play in their style. That’s what for me is ‘the tradition,’ knowing your musical forefathers just like a jazz musician knows his Charlie Parker and his Miles.” The piece opens with an idiomatic but untraditional free improvisation. And later on, the soloing of the piano and the violin is done with tango vocabulary -- but jazz style, on the form of the song.
Similarly, La Trampera gets a very vigorous, true tango reading but, notes Aslan, “Jazz At The Philharmomic style.” Played with a muscular canyengue feel (a distinct, streetwise tango swing), “La Trampera” plays out like a tribute to the African elements at the roots of tango. But, in JATP style, after the ensemble states the theme, every player takes a solo before an ever changing background – a tango blowing session.
Traditionalists might be put off by having trumpet and drums in this version of Viejo Smocking, a song that in the 1930s was part of the standard repertoire of Carlos Gardel, the quintessential tango singer. But the drumming, by Daniel Piazzolla, the grandson of the late Nuevo Tango master Astor Piazzolla, is impeccable, driving hard yet unobtrusively throughout. And trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli, a jazz musician who has been exploring fusions of jazz, tango and Argentine folk styles since the 1970s, makes his post bop runs sound natural. Later, Bergalli also makes a marvelous contribution with his muted trumpet reading of Sin Palabras. In fact throughout “Tango Grill,” it is fascinating to hear Bergalli, Aslan, and violinist Ramiro Gallo sing the melodies in their instruments and improvise, suggesting the phrasing and vocal nuances of a tango singer.
Aslan steps forward in this recording, not only leading from behind, but also playing melodies and improvising, both con arco and pizzicato. “It was a challenge to play so many melodies,” says Aslan. “It’s rare that a bass player is called to play melodies in a tango arrangement. As a bass player, I’ve never felt as comfortable playing as I’ve felt in this session. I was able to do things I had never done before, just by reacting to the music created by this group. It’s the paradox in my search: achieving freedom of expression with tango while playing a supporting role.”
In “Tango Grill,” bringing jazz sensibility to the tango tradition doesn’t sound like an intellectual exercise but rather a personal experience. “For me this recording was yet another confirmation that it’s not that tango musicians don’t improvise, but that they don’t get the opportunity -- and that when they do get the chance, they do it naturally. And it’s not jazz, it’s tango.” -- Fernando Gonzalez
Produced by Pablo Aslan and Gustavo Margulies. Recorded at Estudios Cosentino by Fabiola Russo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in April 2009. Assistant: Christian Russo. Mixed at Estudios MOMA , Buenos Aires, by Fernando Martinez, Pablo Aslan, and Roger Davidson. Assistant: Ivan Pablo Markovic. Mastered by Fernando Martinez. Portrait photography by Fran Kaufman. Additional images by Nora Aslan. Package design by Chris Drukker. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.