Julio Botti’s ZOHO Music debut introduces a fresh new voice to the nuevo tango movement pioneered decades ago by Astor Piazzolla and Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla’s longtime pianist and a prolific composer and producer in his own right. For this coming out party for the young Argentinian saxophonist, an instrument not normally associated with tango music, Ziegler has re-arranged some of his most potent compositions specifically with Botti’s soaring soprano horn in mind. With a majority of the tracks having been recorded in Buenos Aires using Ziegler’s regular trio of Quique Sinesi on guitar, Walter Castro on bandoneon and the maestro himself on piano, augmented by Horacio Hurtado on acoustic bass and Quintino Cinalli on percussion and drums, Tango Nostalgias stands as Botti’s auspicious Stateside debut. It’s a bold step in a new direction for the young saxophonist who had been courting the jazz muse earlier in his career. By embracing his Argentinian roots, Botti has in effect found his own voice on his chosen instrument.
“My advice from the very first moment that I met Julio was to listen to Piazzolla and the old bandoneon players too to catch the true sense of the tango phrasing,” says the venerable pianist-composer Ziegler. “I remember when I met Piazzolla in 1978 and we started with rehearsals, he told me, ‘Pablo, my advice is try to change your improvisation from jazz to tango music.’ That’s what I did, from that time to now. And that’s the same advice I gave to Julio: ‘Don’t think in jazz, think in our phrases and in Buenos Aires time.’”
Botti’s musical journey has been a long and circuitous path, from the small town of Belle Ville in the province of Cordoba, where he grew up within earshot of a municipal marching band he eventually joined at age eight, to the Escuela de Musica Popular La Colmena three hours away in Cordoba City and eventually on to New York City, Havana, Madrid and other musical ports. “In the beginning I did classical music, but after that my dream was to come to New York and take lessons with jazz players,” Botti recalls. After seeing the Danilo Perez Quartet with saxophonist Donny McCaslin perform in Cordoba City in 1995, he made an initial connection, and in 1998 moved to New York to study tenor saxophone with McCaslin and Bob Franchescini.
Following a brief stint of classical studies at a conservatory in Havana, Cuba, in 2002, Botti moved to Spain in 2003 and began working with musicians in Madrid. “I started playing more jazz and released my first record there,” he recalls. “Later on I was getting maybe homesick for my country, my culture. I met a few great musicians from Argentina, and they started to push me more into tango music. I knew about Piazzolla since I was very young, because I would hear Piazzolla’s music all the time, on the radio, on some television programs. His music was everywhere growing up. But the saxophone was never really part of that tradition, so I started playing more Argentinan folk music, which is really where I come from.”
After resettling in New York in 2008, Botti encountered Ziegler. “I had first met Pablo when I was just 19 years old, but now I was older, more mature. We hung out and began rehearsing, just to see what would happen. And I guess Pablo liked it because we started gigging together around in restaurants and small clubs, just to get the feeling if it was going to work or not.”
While touring Argentina in Ziegler’s band during 2009, the saxophonist began to get the spirit and feel of tango music in his bones and under his fingers. “It was a great training ground,” Botti recalls. Adds Ziegler, “Julio was changing his mind then about what kind of music he wanted to play. And my advice at that moment to him was, ‘You have to play the music of your country.’ He was more involved in jazz music before that, but in New York he had to compete with a thousand saxophone players who played jazz as their natural music. And the only way for him to compete was to play a different kind of music that was more his own music.”
Botti admits to being initially too intimidated to approach his mentor about doing this joint project. “I was kind of afraid to ask Pablo to write music for me, because although we had become friends and had a nice vibe together, he’s actually older than my father. I was always the disciple, listening and learning from him about everything that he did with Piazzolla, so I was kind of embarrassed to ask him to write music for me or consider sharing a project together.”
They eventually agreed to collaborate and record in Argentina, where the spirit of the tango lives. “Everything was super easy at the sessions in Buenos Aires,” says Botti. “Even though it’s a big city, the people are really laid back there. It was summer and all the musicians had time to stay so we took our time recording. We had barbecue and wine in the studio and everything was really natural. It’s all played live, no overdubs, and everything was done in one or two takes. For me, it was like a dream come true to record there.”
The collection kicks off in lively fashion with Ziegler’s Celtic Feast, which the composer had written years ago as a commission for a music festival in England but never previously recorded. Botti’s briskly engaging unison and counterpoint lines with Sinesi’s guitar and Castro’s bandoneon give the piece an added lift on top of the insistent groove created by bassist Hurtado, drummer Cinalli and Ziegler’s staccato chording. The saxophonist and pianist also stretch out on decidedly jazzy improvisations here, sailing over the pulsating form with impunity. Sinesi’s arpeggiated guitar lines and Ziegler’s delicate piano set the tone for the darkly evocative Milongueta, a stirring Ziegler composition that he had previously performed in piano duet settings. The highlight of this new arrangement is the conversational duet mid-song between Botti’s soprano sax and Ziegler’s piano.
The rhythmically-charged Imagenes 676 is quintessential Piazzolla – driving, full of intricate cross melodies and dissonant antiphony. It features some bold playing and jazzy improvising by Botti on tenor sax. Piazzolla’s Tanguedia, one of his most familiar tangos, was introduced to Stateside audiences in his 1986 breakthrough album Tango: Zero Hour. The lovely waltz El Vals del Duende was composed by the late Argentinian broadcaster and musician Alejandro Dolina, who grew up in the same Buenos Aires neighborhood as Ziegler. It features guitarist Sinesi, who engages Botti’s soprano sax in an intimate duet to open the piece before they enter into a three-way conversation with bassist Hurtado. Sinesi’s wonderful nylon string guitar solo on this lyrical offering is underscored by drummer Cinalli’s lightly swinging touch on the kit.
Ziegler’s catchy Sandunga, originally written in 1987 for a trio, is a brisk milonga rhythm and features soprano sax and guitar executing some bristling unisons over the pianist’s cascading chord changes. Ziegler’s Elegia Sobre Adios Nonino is a variation on one of Piazzolla’s most well known melodies, “Adios Nonino,” composed in October 1959 as an ode to his recently departed father, Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla.
The three remaining tracks featuring string quartet – a rendition of Piazzolla’s dramatic Introduccion Al Angel, the melancholy Nostalgias by J.C. Cobian and E. Cadiacamo, and Ziegler’s Milonga del Adios – were recorded in New York. The dynamic Piazzolla number travels through a myriad of moods, beginning in brooding, classically influenced fashion before shifting to a driving tango form that culminates in some lively call-and-response between piano and soprano sax. “Nostalgias” showcases Botti’s expressive playing on soprano sax while the moving “Milonga del Adios” has him switching to tenor sax and singing passionately through his horn in dark-hued, deeply resonant tones.
Though Botti had previously recorded his jazz-tinged Zafari Project in 2003 while living in Madrid and followed up with the trio project Lenguajes in 2005, his debut on ZOHO Music is a powerful manifesto that places him at the forefront of the nuevo tango tradition. And it shows the promise of things to come from this outstanding new talent on the scene. – Bill Milkowski
Produced by Pablo Ziegler. Tracks:1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9 & 10 Recorded in Casa Frida Studios, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 3 & 4, 2010. Engineered by Mariano Cuello and Hernan Caratozzolo. Tracks 3, 5 & 8: MSR Studios, New York City, on March 27, 2010. Engineered by Alejandro Venger. Mixed by Alejandro Venger. Mastered by Oscar Zambrano. Executive Producers Julio and Kelly Botti, Joachim "Jochen" Becker.