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Astor Piazzolla

Tango composer and bandoneón player Astor Piazzolla revolutionized traditional tango into a new style termed nuevo tango, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. Piazzolla was born in 1921, and was exposed to both jazz and the music of Bach at an early age. He began to play the bandoneón after his father, nostalgic for his homeland, spotted one in a New York pawn shop.

He returned to Argentina in 1937, where strictly traditional tango still reigned, and played in night clubs with a series of groups including the orchestra of Anibal Troilo, then considered the top bandoneón player and bandleader in Buenos Aires. The pianist Arthur Rubinstein advised him to study with the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. He did so, and rose early on countless mornings to hear the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearse while continuing a grueling performing schedule in the tango clubs at night.

At Ginastera’s urging, in 1953 Piazzolla entered a composition contest, and won a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was Boulanger who urged him to introduce his new approach to the tango into his compositions.

Piazzolla returned to Argentina in 1955 with his nuevo tango and never looked back. An excellent bandoneón player, he regularly performed his own compositions with different ensembles. His reworking of the tango was distinct from the traditional tango in its incorporation of elements of jazz, its use of extended harmonies and dissonance, its use of counterpoint, and its ventures into extended compositional forms. It is hard to pin down Piazzolla’s music, as it soars with a freedom that is borrowed from jazz in concept, but in practice involves a vocabulary of scales and rhythms from the classical/tango world. The result is music that is at once dynamic, beautiful and warm, with emotion that resonates from the soul.