New Tango comes in from the cold

By Jenny March
For the Herald

There’s a saying here that “nadie es profeta en su tierra” (Nobody is a prophet in his own land), and there must have been many times when ace jazz-New Tango pianist, composer and arranger, Pablo Ziegler, felt that this applied to him. His frustration at the traditionalism of the BA tango scene and the impossibility of getting projects smoothly off the ground in recent years have led him, like many other Argentine, cutting-edge tango musicians, to spend more and more time working abroad.

Ziegler and his music enjoy considerable recognition outside of Argentina and the Latin Grammy his most recent CD has received vindicates this, but in Buenos Aires he does have a passionate following who recognize his talent and pack out venues like La revuelta, Notorious and the occasional concerts he is invited to give for the BA City Government’s tango festivals. If you do a Google search for Pablo Ziegler you will come up with no less than 299,000 entries and his resumé (see website is nothing but impressive: among other things, he has worked with a quintet in New York and one in BA and now has trios in both cities; he plays at New York’s most famous jazz clubs, The Blue Note and Jazz Standard; he has collaborated with great musicians in both the classical (Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo-Ma, among others) and jazz fields (Paquito D’Rivera, Gary Burton) and works with symphony orchestras (including the Filarmónica and the Sinfónica of Buenos Aires, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York’s Carnegie Hall and The Sidney Symphony Orchestra in a special event at The Sydney Opera House, for which he also worked with number one tango dancer-choreographer Miguel Angel Zotto, directing, playing and writing arrangements of his own and Astor Piazzolla’s music.

But perhaps the experience that influenced classical-turned-New Tango and jazz pianist, Ziegler’s style and music most profoundly, was his ten-year stint — from 1979 to 1989 — playing in the legendary last quintet of Astor Piazzolla. This formative period, together with Ziegler’s formidable abilities as an arranger, composer and pianist, and his openness to working with improvisation as an integral part of New Tango and jazz, make him one of the most natural heirs to the Piazzolla legacy.

Even before the Grammy, Ziegler and his trios had their years packed from end to end with bookings, and from now on this will doubly be the case. Constant touring can limit time available for writing new material and recording, but since the 1990s Ziegler has recorded La Conexión Porteña (Sony Music, 1991); Los Tangueros, his famous collaboration with Emanuel Ax, where he arranged Piazzolla compositions for two pianos (Sony Classics, 1996); Asfalto (Asphalt – Street Tango, RCA Victor 1998); Tango Romance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (BMG Classics, 1998); Quintet for New Tango (BMG classics, 2000) and Bajo Cero (released in Argentina by MDR-Notorious, 2004). There’s also an, as yet, unreleased recording to look forward to, made with vibraphone player Gary Burton.

Ziegler says that Bajo Cero, the blue tango which gives the CD its name, came after a period playing Europe and the US when, on returning to Argentina in the depressing crisis years of 2001 and 2002, everything seemed to be grey, cold and inactive — to “below zero.” At that time he had begun to explore the possibilities of the trio, working with different lineups, all comprising musicians who have played with him in his quintets at some time or another (in Argentina these are: bandoneon, Walter Castro; bass, Horacio “El Mono” Hurtado; guitar, Quique Sinesi and Armando de la Vega; and drums, Horacio López).

The trio he has toured with most extensively is in fact described as a duo: Ziegler and superb, Berlin-based guitarist, Quique Sinesi (who played with the quintet before settling in Germany) and “guest” Walter Castro who has, in fact, played bandoneon with Ziegler for some years. This is the lineup for the award-winning Bajo Cero recorded in Germany at Hansahaus Studios, Bonn and mastered in the US at Sterling Sound, New York. The recording is straight, without effects, so that the musicianship speaks for itself.

The album opens with a Ziegler milonga, La Rayuela, a jumping hop-scotch of jazzy rhythms. Héctor Stamponi’s Flor de Lino is given a leisurely treatment followed by a bright and brilliant rendering of Piazzolla’s Chin Chin, with some great, jazz-style improvisation from all three musicians. La Fundición (The Foundry) by Ziegler, is a perfect vehicle for the driving attack of his piano playing; this gives way to his slow, slow Milonga del Adiós, displaying an altogether different sort of delicacy, the kind that Brazilians would call “saudoso,” with a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia that would fit a bossa nova song.

Bajo Cero, the sixth track, is very blue, with a heavy, descending melodic line that slides you downwards. But Federico’s Yuyo Verde, in a jazzy interpretation, brings you up again and the distinctly modern sounding and upbeat Planufer Milonga, the only number by guitarist Sinesi, evokes a different place and time. Sinesi took as inspiration the riverside, Planufer Street he lives on in Berlin. After a graceful and thoughtful Los Mareados (the trio’s rendition of the great Cobián-Cadícamo classic), the final track is a superb Fuga y Misterio — a true “post-Piazzolla” arrangement, taking this pinnacle of tango-classical composition firmly forward into the 21st. century.

All the numbers give ample space for each musician to shine, much in the democratic tradition of modern jazz, and shine they do. This must be one of the hardest-earned and best-deserved Grammys.

Winner of the sixth Latin Grammy Award for Best Tango Album, Bajo Cero, featuring Pablo Ziegler, Quique Sinesi and Walter Castro, released in Argentina by MDR Records/Notorious Clásicos, 2004.