Pablo Ziegler’s Nuevo Tango
with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra
Sat. Feb. 21, 8 p.m.
Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
Today, he chuckles at the memory of it.
“For me,” says Argentine composer and pianist Pablo Ziegler, “the tango was an old-fashioned music.”
It was the first music that his father — a successful violinist with a traditional tango orchestra in Buenos Aires — had taught him to play. Ziegler recalls hunting the melody among the piano keys with two fingers. Perhaps then and there, the piano claimed him. But the tango did not. Not yet.
He began studying classical piano at the age of 4. Within 10 years he’d earned a teaching degree. And at 15, Ziegler kicked off his professional career. In a Dixieland jazz band. He’d fallen — hard — for jazz.
The feisty, graceful riffs of Duke Ellington, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton kept him busy. But the tango of his father’s era was nowhere in Ziegler’s plans. His love for jazz textures and, especially, improvisation did not fit in that world.
Then in 1978, Ziegler accepted an invitation to join Astor Piazzolla’s quintet.
“Astor’s music was a revelation,” he says.
Over 20 years, Piazzolla, the Argentine tango composer who was known to keep a portrait of Bartók above his bed, had shaken the tango free of its sleepy, ballroom dotage and introduced it to the concert hall. Piazzolla called this evolutionary step Nuevo Tango. It was tango — the emotive soul of it — but with layers of polyphony, classical counterpoint, and even improvisation.
Ziegler would devote the next decade of his career to sharing in Piazzolla’s vision for that new tango before taking up the mantle himself. Today, he’s considered his generation’s leading representative of this provocative, genre-bending music.
Of his mentor Ziegler says, “I was fortunate to join him at the height of his powers. Yet the early years were very hard work — Astor continually defending his ideas, his music. He may not have imagined what would become of his music. Today, I have hundreds of CDs from around the world, all artists interpreting Astor’s music. It’s marvelous.”
In his own compositions, he speaks of carrying on that work.
“Astor reflected on the Buenos Aires of his day, as I try to reflect all the changes in Buenos Aires these days. My album Bajo Cero is an example,” Ziegler says. “Things had gotten so bad at one point — politically, economically — it was unimaginable. Profound desolation on so many levels. And it affected me very deeply. Composition is a long road to travel, so many tonalities and emotions, but I’ll always carry the influence of Buenos Aires in my music.”
Ziegler is enthusiastic about the musical era that inspired him most. “Return to Forever, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and, later, Keith Jarrett — they were opening things up to new sounds and textures. And I continue exploring, looking at the new classical composers, the ideas they’re working with.”
His work, he considers, is fusion, but always rooted in the city of his birth.
And today’s tango fusion bands?
“Young composers mixing in electronics and other elements — Bajofondo and Gotan Project, many others now — they work in samples of conventional tango phrases,” he says. “But it’s not comparable to Astor’s work. Theirs is more of a stage show.
“They’re working in reverse from what we do. They’re moving tango into contemporary dance music. Also, one tries to achieve over time a consistency in composition, which makes a lasting contribution.”
Asked if he had a model for that kind of contribution, he doesn’t hesitate.
There is great affection in his voice.
“He persisted. And, to this day, he endures.”