11:50 AM CDT, April 11, 2013
In 1959, Astor Piazzolla – a genius of tango composition and performance – released "Take Me Dancing," an album he later deemed an artistic "sin."
The jazz-inspired recording, which Piazzolla had hoped would enable him to break through to the American audience, made scant impact and inspired deep regret from its creator.
"I sold my soul to the devil," Piazzolla later remarked.
But Piazzolla's contempt for the project didn't stop contemporary tango musician Pablo Aslan from making his own version of it, "Piazzolla in Brooklyn (and the Rebirth of Jazz Tango)." As the title suggests, the album goes a long way toward merging jazz techniques with tango rhythms and instrumentation (at least in the use of bandoneon, Piazzolla's instrument). And this is the music that Aslan will play Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.
Presented by Contempo, a longtime champion of contemporary music in Chicago, the program will give listeners a chance to hear how far jazz-tango has come since Piazzolla's experiment. For even if you haven't heard the original "Take Me Dancing," there's no question that "Piazzolla in Brooklyn" takes the music briskly into the present, its harmonies ultra-sophisticated, its give-and-take among musicians quick, bracing and bristling with the spirit of 21st century jazz.
The question, though, is why bassist-bandleader Aslan – a longtime advocate for the tango music of his native Argentina – turned for inspiration to a recording that Piazzolla himself came to loathe.
"I was reading a biography of (Piazzolla) written by a music critic here in Buenos Aires who put his finger on that particular recording," says Aslan, speaking by phone from a tour in Argentina.
The book asserted that "for all that (the album) was maligned, it really marked a difference – sort of a dividing line between before and after, and that intrigued me.
"I put it in my car stereo and repeated it over and over, and I started hearing what I wanted to do. And I realized that the charts were great, the actual written music was great."
Even if Piazzolla himself called the recording "a black stain in my story," according to Fernando Gonzalez's illuminating liner notes to Aslan's follow-up, the project certainly gave Aslan and his quintet an opportunity to find common ground between tango and jazz. This is a greater challenge than one might realize, for tango rhythms do not lend themselves easily to its swing-based counterpart. Listen to "Piazzolla in Brooklyn," and you'll hear a constant tug between tango undercurrents and free-flying jazz improvisation.
Few musicians are better equipped to take on this challenge than Aslan, who was born in Buenos Aires and spent his first 18 years there, before migrating to California to study. He spent the 1980s playing tango clubs in Los Angeles before moving in the 1990s to New York, where he now lives. Like Piazzolla, who was based in New York when he recorded "Take Me Dancing," Aslan had traveled a far distance to find his voice in the music of Argentina.
"The irony, of course, is that I discovered tango so far from home and way before the tango renaissance," says Aslan.
"My parents were like, 'You left home and now you're into tango?'"
But hearing bassist Charlie Haden collaborating with Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi, in the 1980s, helped Aslan realize that tango "was where I should be," he says. "I needed something to anchor me musically. I was not pretending that I was born in Detroit or Philly."
In effect, tango "helped me in my exile," adds Aslan. "I became more Argentine than I was when I left (Argentina)."
At the same time, however, Aslan was smitten with jazz, because of "that sense of freedom" the music conveys.
In America, "I got the experience of playing standards and improvising, so I knew what that was about. I started working in the tango clubs back in the '80s in L.A., and there were a lot of times when we played these improvised tangos, because we didn't have arrangements, and I felt this affinity (for both tango and jazz).
"So I wanted to chase that affinity, but with people who were as familiar with (Charles) Mingus and Miles Davis as I was."
Ultimately, Aslan decided that he needed to collaborate with musicians in Argentina who had come of age living and breathing tango music. Together on "Piazzolla in Brooklyn," they reinvent jazz standards such as "Laura" and "Lullaby of Birdland," as well as Piazzolla originals (all but one of the tunes were on Piazzolla's "Take Me Dancing" album).
But for this weekend's concert (on a double-bill with Jorge Liderman's one-act opera "Antigona Furiosa"), Aslan will be playing with his American band, an indication of his hopes to base more of his art here in his adopted home.
"My next project – one of them – is to make an American record, not to have to travel to Buenos Aires to record and perhaps let go of some of the tango expectations and do more improvisations," he says.
In other words, tilt the balance even more steeply toward jazz.
As for the tango audience in America, Aslan finds that it's divided into two basic groups: Dance lovers who revere traditional tango and concert audiences who flock to music of Piazzolla.
Perhaps, he says, a quintet such as his can bridge those two worlds.
"Hopefully," says Aslan, "jazz attitude will make a difference."
Certainly Aslan is doing his part.
Also worth hearing
Kenny Garrett: The thoroughly extroverted saxophonist famously played with Miles Davis but long since has commanded an imposing reputation as bandleader. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $25-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Dee Alexander: An extraordinarily versatile and virtuosic Chicago singer, Alexander will head her Evolution Ensemble. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10-$12; constellation-chicago.com
Bebop Brass: A "Tribute to Lee Morgan" will feature trumpeters Pharez Whitted and Victor Garcia; trombonists Steve Berry, Adam Thornburg and Audrey Morrison; plus drummer Xavier Breaker, bassist Marlene Rosenberg and pianist Miguel de la Cerna; presented by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. 7 p.m. Friday at Tuley Park, 501 E. 90th Pl.; free; 312-427-1676 or jazzinchicago.org
Bobby Lewis: The venerable, deeply lyrical Chicago trumpeter leads his quintet. 5, 6 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10-$15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com
Dave Liebman: A mighty, questing saxophonist, Liebman will lead a Chicago quartet, with pianist Jim Trompeter, bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer. 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com
Chicago Underground Duo: Cornetist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor have forged an empathetic partnership in free-flowing improvisations. 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10-$12; constellation-chicago.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
Pablo Aslan Quintet
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.
Tickets: $25 general; $5 students; 773-702-2787 or ticketsweb.uchicago.edu
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