New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Nick Danielson violin

Transcending a Grim Era in New York with Pedro Giraudo’s Tango Quartet at Barbes

Saturday night at Barbes, Pedro Giraudo thanked a small but raptly attentive audience for their bravery in coming out for his show there with his brilliant tango quartet. Pretty much everybody sitting at the bar drifted into the music room when the band started; not a single person in the crowd showed any sign of ill health.

Inevitably, everyone who writes nuevo tango gets compared to Astor Piazzolla, but Giraudo is the rare composer who’s earned that distinction. Over the past few years, his monthly Saturday night Barbes residency has grown to the point that this was an unlikely opportunity to actually be able to get in to see him at the moment the show began.

As intricately intertwining as his songs are, he’s a very terse bass player who’s more interested in melody and texture than flash, fingerpicking as well as bowing a handful of the more darkly luxuriant numbers. Violinist Nick Danielson swooped and dove, plucking out sparks of pizzicato along with stiletto minor-key riffs and contrastingly silky atmosphere in the quieter tunes. Bandoneonist Rodolfo Zanetti exchanged similarly dynamic, sometimes slashing, sometimes gently resonant washes of sound alongside Ahmed Alom, the group’s spectacular pianist, whose rapidfire cascades and nimbly crushing chordal attack were understatedly spectacular to watch. Players who have that kind of raw power and precision to match are hard to find.

There was a lot of Piazzolla in the set, from the vivid, relentlessly leaping shark-fishing scenario Escualo, to a rapturous, moodily drifting take of Milonga Del Angel, to a considerably more biting, kinetic tune. But it was Giraudo’s originals that everybody had come out for. The high point of the night was Impetuoso,a relentlessly suspenseful, turbulently crescendoing depiction that Alom finally brought to a searing, icepicked, percussive peak.

Cicada, complete with wry insectile calls from bandoneon and violin, was a lot more carefree and playful. Alom’s pointillisms glittered most brightly in a newer, more serpentine minor-key tune; a bit later, Giraudo reminded how waltzes are a big part of the tango tradition, with both a strikingly spare, almost minimally elegant one of his own, along with a brief detour back to the early days of tango in Argentina. From there they picked up the pace to close the show with a couple of characteristically rising and falling originals.

Grim conjecture prevailed afterward at the bar. Giraudo spoke of hopefully resuming his residency next month. What’s the situation with the bar now? “Chaos,” as one insider somberly put it. Barbes has been booked so smartly over the years that nights which are slow at other venues are moneymakers here. The official response to the coronavirus scare forced the club to go dark, at least for the foreseeable future. How long can any other venue in town survive? How are all the people who work in any kind of service industry – living from paycheck to paycheck, piecing together shifts, dogwalking gigs and such – going to be able to make rent next month, let alone now? In hushed, serious tones, old friends weighed the odds of every possible dire scenario.

Barbes successfully got through a hard patch when hit with unanticipated building-related costs in 2017: more than eight hundred people contributed to their fundraiser and a benefit concert at Drom in June of that year. Saturday night, several customers enthusiastically considered another one. Others simply wondered how long they could stay here. “I think I’ve got about another month left in New York,” a famous immigrant novelist mused. Another patron contemplated making a new start, away from this climate of fear, with relatives who have a house further north. That we should all be so lucky.

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.