It takes nerve to try to recreate a classic album. It takes more nerve to try to resurrect a bad one and transform it into something listenable. That’s what bassist Pablo Aslan and his quintet have attempted with their new album Piazzolla in Brooklyn: to take the songs from Astor Piazzolla’s notoriously failed attempt at tango jazz, Take Me Dancing, and redeem them. Some useful context: when Piazzolla made Take Me Dancing in 1959, America was at the height of the mambo craze. While there were some Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican artists – most notably Machito – who benefited from middleclass and upper middleclass America’s sudden embrace of Afro-Cuban dance music, most of the popular stuff was being made by gringo schlockmeisters or generic swing bandleaders who watered it down in order to appeal to a mainstream (and frequently racist) white audience. Obviously, that wasn’t Piazzola’s intention: being an insatiable eclecticist and cross-pollinator, he never met a collaboration he could resist – but this was one he should have, because there’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have minded if the album had become a hit. Good thing it didn’t – the tunes are nice, some of them on the breezy side for a tormented, brooding guy like him, but the album just doesn’t swing. Nobody’s on the same page, and for that reason the session has gone down in history as sort of Piazzolla’s Metal Machine Music, a trainwreck you can see coming a mile away.
Interestingly, Aslan – who, like Piazzolla, has made a career out of taking tango sounds to new and exciting places – opens this experiment with a Piazzolla tune that’s not on Take Me Dancing. La Calle 92, dedicated to the Spanish Harlem street where the composer lived for a time. It’s a triumphantly slinky mini-suite, moving slyly on the pulse of the bass, with Gustavo Bergalli’s vivid, noirish trumpet and the warily incisive piano of Abel Rogantini. It doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the album – it gets considerably darker and more suspenseful than what’s in store – but it’s a good start.
The first of the 1959 cuts here, Counterpoint, gets a dark, bristling bounce, stark bowed bass contrasting with the trumpet and Nicolas Enrich’s animated bandoneon: as Piazzolla may well have envisioned it, it’s more classical than jazz. Dedita, which Piazzolla dedicated it to his wife at the time, switches between tango and swing, with a casual, soulful solo from Bergalli, Rogantini adding an unexpected and delicious menace afterward, drummer Daniel Piazzolla (the composer’s grandson) reaffirming that with a goodnaturedly rumbling precision.
Laura, the old jazz standard, begins as bandoneon tune, somewhere in the netherworld between tango and jazz, the whole band – especially Aslan, whose gritty touch really nails the mood – hanging back just thisfar away from going over the edge. George Shearing’s Lullaby of Birdland, Piazzolla’s other choice of cover tune, follows as practically a segue and benefits from some amped-up drama and syncopated punch. As one would expect from the title, Oscar Peterson is a homage to the piano legend, and a showcase for surprising restraint and intensity from Rogantini, who just as much as Aslan serves as dark, purist Argentine anchor here over the younger Piazzolla’s wry Caribbean-inflected riffs. The ambitious, cosmopolitan musette-inflected Plus Ultra gets a characteristically incisive, blue-flame solo from Aslan; Show Off, true to its title, hints at the big band blaze that Piazzolla swung at and missed, hard, the first time around, but Enrich’s chill, rippling wee-hours lines keep it from crossing the line into kitsch. With its self-conscious, fussy riff, Something Strange is the weakest track here. They close with a bustling, relentless, absolutely triumphant take of Triunfal, where they finally take it deep into the postbop territory whose energy Piazzolla doubtlessly wanted to capture the first time around.
Interestingly, Aslan claims to have “systematically avoided” Piazzolla’s music until now, since it’s pretty much impossible to outdo the master. How cool it is that Aslan found something in the repertoire that he could surpass! This one’s out now on Soundbrush.