by Ian Mann
October 27, 2020
Commissioned by the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival & filmed in Argentina this stream charts the linked histories of tango & jazz and the music & history of the Tango Jazz Quartet, led by Gustavo Firmenich.
TANGO JAZZ QUARTET
‘TANGO MEETS JAZZ’
WALL2WALL VIRTUAL JAZZ FESTIVAL 2020, ABERGAVENNY
First streamed 16th October 2020
Available via ticket only until 28th November 2020
Gustavo Firmenich – tenor sax, clarinet, Horacio Acosta – piano, Martin Rao De Vita, Mauricio Pasculli – drums
In recent years Black Mountain Jazz have struck up quite a friendship with the Buenos Aires based Tango Jazz Quartet and its leader, saxophonist, clarinettist and composer Gustavo Firmenich.
The Argentinian four piece habitually spend their winter, our summer, on tour in various parts of the globe and in 2016 undertook a massive excursion around Europe, including a headlining date at that year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. This represented my first introduction to the group’s unique fusion of jazz and tango elements, and although it initially represented something on an acquired taste it’s a flavour that I have returned to many times since. My impressions of that first encounter can be read as part of my 2016 Festival coverage here;
In 2017 Firmenich returned to Abergavenny leading the fourteen piece Sotavento Big Band, who were also on tour in Europe. This was a very different line up and was fronted by Firmenich’s wife, singer Patricia Leguizamon. However the music still featured a blend of Argentinian tango and American jazz and once again the performance was very well received by the Abergavenny public.
Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sotavento-big-band-black-mountain-jazz-melville-centre-abergavenny-10-07-20
Firmenich is also an acclaimed jazz educator and also in 2017 he returned with the student band Orquesta de Monte, an ensemble closely linked with educational establishment in the town of San Miguel de Monte, near Buenos Aires. This unit put a greater emphasis on Argentinian folk forms, although an American jazz element was also heard thanks to the inclusion of tunes associated with Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock. Review here;
TJQ then made a return visit for the 2019 Wall2Wall Festival, but although the band were arguably playing than ever the attendance, due to various mitigating factors (an early start, clashes with other events) was rather disappointing. This meant that the gig felt less of an ‘occasion’ than Firmenich’s previous visits had done, but this took nothing away from the quality of the music.
Early 2020 saw TJQ performing in both Europe and the US but the group had to cut short their plans and return to Argentina at the onset of the pandemic. Although their subsequent tour plans have been abandoned the quartet have been far from idle, recording a series of videos at their HQ in Buenos Aires.
They were due to appear at Brecon Jazz Festival in 2020 but instead delivered an excellent livestream performance as part of the ‘Virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival. The virtual BJF was an excellent on line event and one that was very well received by the jazz public. My account of TJQ’s performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
I was expecting TJQ’s livestream performance for Wall2Wall to be broadly similar in nature to their Brecon Jazz Festival appearance, i.e. a live set filmed at their Buenos Aires HQ. However this excellent film, commissioned by Wall2Wall and filmed in Argentina by TJQ and their associates, offered far more than this.
Titled “Tango Meets Jazz” this is a production lasting for an hour and a half that charts the historic links between tango and jazz and also traces the history of TJQ itself and the way in which this hard working band has brought its unique blend of tango and jazz to the wider world through its extensive international touring. The historical elements are interspersed by musical performances by the current line up of TJQ, which serve to illustrate the narrative as well as being highly satisfying in themselves.
Filmed by Buenas Notas Productions and with a screenplay by Horacio Baldassarre this is a highly professional production that sees all four group members talking to camera in addition to a number of ‘talking heads’ from all around the world, all with close links to TJQ. These include fellow musicians, music journalists and broadcasters, promoters and even an Argentinian diplomat. English subtitles are provided, where necessary, throughout. Effective use is also made of archive film which is skilfully integrated into the narrative.
The production begins by charting the parallels between the development of tango and the development of jazz. The roots of both musics began in the late 19th century in the cosmopolitan port cities of Buenos Aires and New Orleans respectively. The input of immigrants was crucial to the development of both styles of music as, was the part in which the cities’ rivers, the Plate and the Mississippi played in the spreading of the music to a wider geographical area. Both genres were initially regarded as being “libertine and immoral” strands of music, with each first coming to prominence in the “red light” areas of their respective cities (La Boca and Storyville), before eventually achieving a level of cultural respectability in the second half of the twentieth century.
Journalist Claudio Parisi explains that the famous “Spanish Tinge”, a phrase coined by the pioneering jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, was effectively a reference to tango. W.C. Handy then incorporated tango elements into his famous composition “St. Louis Blues”, an enormously influential hit at the time and a song still played by jazz musicians to this day. The film includes snippets of performances by Wynton Marsalis and by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
Handy’s song had been written with dancing in mind, specifically that of a troupe of dancers from Paris who had found their way to New Orleans. Tango was already a popular dance in Paris, a fact that further emphasises the importance of migration in the tango / jazz story.
Although the various strands of the film are interwoven I’m inclined to pick them apart and consider them singly for the purposes of this review, which will hopefully make this article seem less disjointed. The merging of the various elements is more conducive to the audio / visual medium than it is to print. I do not wish to imply that the film is any way uneven or disjointed.
The links between tango and jazz were strengthened in the 1950s as air travel became more common and more affordable. Louis Armstrong visited Buenos Aires in 1955 and recorded two tangos, re-working “El Choclo” into the US hit “Kiss of Fire” and “Adios Muchachos” into the song “I Get Ideas”, which was subsequently covered by Tom Martin, Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby.
In 1957 Armstrong returned to Buenos Aires and performed at the city’s Opera Theatre. Archive film showed Armstrong finishing a performance of “Adios Muchachos / I Get Ideas” in Spanish, in an attempt to further strengthen the musical and cultural roots between Buenos Aires and New Orleans.
Another famous American trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, visited Buenos Aires in 1956 to record with tango big band leader Osvaldo Fresedo and his Orchestra. Gillespie also recorded a version of “Adios Muchachos”, in addition to “Vida Mia”, “Preludo No.3” and “Capricho De Amor”. Archive film is shown of Gillespie performing with the Fresedo Orchestra, while, ever the showman, Gillespie’s presence in the Argentine was publicised by his dressing up as a gaucho for a series of promotional photographs!
Meanwhile tango star Carlos Gardel, a singer described as “Tango’s answer to Armstrong” had made the return journey and black and white film was shown of him performing in the movie “El Tango on Broadway”, which was filmed in New York in 1934.
But arguably the man that did most to bring the two forms together was the great composer and bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla (1921-92). Born in the Argentinian city of Mar Del Plata Piazzolla spent part of his childhood in New York, where he developed a love for both types of music. After returning to his homeland Piazzolla became established as a composer and bandleader and began adding Argentinian jazz musicians such as the guitarists Horacio Malvicino and Oscar Lopez Ruiz and the pianists Santiago Giacobbe and Pablo Ziegler to his groups. He later worked with American jazz musicians such as baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Incorporating elements of jazz and classical music the highly prolific Piazzolla developed a new style of tango, dubbed ‘nuevo tango’, and his work helped to bring the music greater respect and cultural acceptance. He regularly performed at international jazz festivals, sharing the bill with such well known jazz musicians as trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Oscar Peterson. There’s some great archive footage of Piazzolla (and Mulligan) in action, the only time I’ve actually seen the great man play, despite often seeing his music performed by others.
The other historical thread running through this excellent production is the story of Tango Jazz Quartet itself. Leader Gustavo Firmenich is the only constant in a line up that has evolved over time, and it’s his vision that has guided the group over the course of the last fifteen years.
Firmenich began as a jazz musician, his group the Jazz 4 initially playing compositions by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other jazz composers. In 1997, at Firmenich’s suggestion the band began to add tango elements to their music, “drawing from our own culture” as Firmenich describes it.
It was not until 2005 that TJQ as we know it was formed, with an unusual line up of reeds, piano, electric bass and drums. These last two instruments are not normally associated with tango ensembles, as the members of the current line up explained.
First Martin Rao De Vita explains the role of the electric bass in tango, something that only began with Piazzolla’s octet.
Likewise the drums are not a traditional tango instrument as Mauricio Pasculli informs us. Percussive rhythms had previously been played on the body of the double bass or the side of the bandoneon.
The decision to deploy such non-tango instruments emphasised TJQ’s determination to forge a genuine fusion between jazz and tango, and in its early days the group was considered “too jazz for tango” and “too tango for jazz”. This comment reminded me of drummer Bill Bruford’s remarks about his Earthworks group, which similarly fell between the two stools of jazz and rock.
Nevertheless TJQ began to build a following, but suffered a setback when their planned 2009 tour of Europe fell through due to the then ongoing global financial crisis. Even then the group didn’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves and concentrated on completing their first album.
Their big break came when they received a letter from the great French accordionist Richard Galliano who told the band that he loved what they were doing with their fusion of jazz and tango and that he would like to play with them. In 2010 Galliano was touring in Brazil and arranged to come to Argentina where he played a hugely successful gig with TJQ. The film includes archive footage of the gig with Galliano and features a startlingly hirsute Galliano. The audience reception is ecstatic and Galliano encouraged the band to take their music to Europe.
In 2010 and 2011 TJQ made their first European tour and the film includes interviews with the broadcaster Julio Lagos and with the Swiss promoter Olivier Pittet who put the band on in several of Switzerland’s major towns and cities. TJQ now play in Switzerland on every European tour and are almost regarded as “locals”, using the country as a base for their regular European sojourns.
In 2012 TJQ returned to Europe and the film is illustrated with a series of ‘stills’, both on and off stage, from their travels.
The success of their European tours had clearly given TJQ a love of travel and in 2013 they spread their net wider, visiting South Africa as well as Europe. The European leg of the tour included performances in France, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, and the film includes coverage of a performance at the Music Village jazz club in Brussels, a venue I was fortunate enough to visit myself back in 2005.
2014 was even busier as the band visited three continents, Europe, North America and Asia. The European dates included the Porgy & Bess Jazz Club in Vienna, before the group moved on to Russia, where they performed with tango dancers accompanying the band on stage, as illustrated by the accompanying archive footage.
Journalist and broadcaster Jorge Fuentes explains how he met TJQ in South Africa and then brought them to New Orleans.
Meanwhile the diplomat Pedro Marotta, the Argentinian consul in Shanghai had seen TJQ at the Hong Kong Jazz Festival and made arrangements to bring them to mainland China where they performed in Shanghai and Beijing.
TJQ’s pianist Horacio Acosta talks to camera and explains that he joined the group in 2015 following a rigorous audition process. Acosta was primarily a jazz and fusion pianist who wanted to expand his musical horizons and he describes TJQ as his “ideal group”. I’ve certainly been impressed by Acosta on the various occasions that I’ve seen the band, both live and on screen.
In terms of touring Acosta was thrown in at the deep end with the 2015 “Triple Africa” tour, which saw TJQ visiting South Africa, Mozambique and Nigeria, before moving on to Europe to play several major jazz festivals.
2016 was the year that Firmenich and TJQ first began their association with BMJ / Wall2Wall. But it was also the year that they toured in Eastern Europe for the first time, playing to an enormous crowd on the main stage at the Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia, the biggest jazz festival in Eastern Europe. Here they shared a bill with the American jazz musicians Al DiMeola (guitar) and Bill Evans (reeds) and the British acts Joss Stone and Shakatak. They also played at the Novi Sad Jazz Festival and at the Argentinian Embassy in Belgrade. In an interview, conducted in English, promoter Biljana Petkovic Ravcic of the Guarnerius Arts Centre sings the praises of the band.
In 2017, as part of their “North and South” tour TJQ returned to Nisville and also performed in the UK, including a date at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London.
Acosta describes how2018 found TJQ playing in Istanbul for the first time as well as returning to the US, where they played at Small’s Jazz Club in New York City and Snug Harbor in New Orleans. At Snug Harbor members of TJQ were also invited on stage to play with trombonist and New Orleans native Delfeayo Marsalis, and there’s some great footage of a performance of the Wayne Shorter tune “Footprints”. Acosta informs us that “Billie’s Bounce” was also played. He clearly found this to be an unforgettable experience.
In 2019 TJQ invited trumpeter, and sometime journalist, Marcello Gillespi Rodriguez to join them for a series of live dates in Switzerland, France, Germany and Spain. Rodriguez is interviewed and explains how much he enjoyed working with the band as they played to audiences consisting of local jazz fans and ex pat Argentinians, the latter helping to generate a real feeling of community for the musicians. This tour also included a string of British dates including Hampstead Jazz Club, The Verdict in Brighton, and, of course, a return visit to Wall2Wall.
2019 also saw the band making a special appearance in neighbouring Brazil as Eduardo Codoy, the Director of Culture for the Brazilian city of Ponta Grossa explains. Here TJQ performed a concert with the Symphony Orchestra of Ponta Grossa, which is also illustrated by a healthy slice of archive footage as Codoy speaks of the fostering of cultural relationships between the two countries.
Early 2020 saw TJQ in Europe where they performed dates in the company of their guest, Argentinian folk singer Yamila Cafrune. The singer was already a fan of the band and in an interview describes how she was delighted to get the opportunity to perform with them. A short visit to the US also saw TJQ perform at the legendary Minton’s Playhouse, birthplace of bebop and once the musical home of Dizzy Gillespie.
Running alongside all this historical footage is a full length performance by TJQ featuring elven different pieces, tied in loosely with the unfolding narrative. Discrete visuals are featured behind the band members and the whole thing is immaculately filmed and recorded, the production values are consistently high throughout.
TJQ commence with Piazzolla’s “Libertango”, which plays behind the opening sequence comparing the origins of tango and jazz.
For “El Esquinazo” the focus is fully on the band, allowing the listener to fully appreciate the subtleties of TJQ’s unique blending of jazz and tango, with solos coming from Firmenich on clarinet and De Vita on five string electric bass.
“Tinta Roja” is a familiar item from the TJQ repertoire and a piece that has been featured at their live performances at Wall2Wall. It is performed here with solos coming from Firmenich on tenor sax and Acosta at the piano.
“Descencuentro” is one of several tango pieces performed by the band in the style of a jazz ballad, with Pasculli’s brushed drums and De Vita’s understated electric bass underpinning the solos of Firmenich on tenor and Acosta at the piano. Firmenich then moves to clarinet for “Toda Mi Vida”.
Played to illustrate the “new wave” of tango pioneered by Piazzolla “El Ultimo Café” also has the feel of a jazz ballad and incorporates lyrical solos from Acosta on piano and Firmenich on tenor. Pasculli gives a particularly impressive performance behind the drum kit, his playing delicately nuanced and rich in detail as he relishes his role as a colourist.
“Como Dos Extranos” (illustrating “The Golden Age II”) is more up-tempo, with Pasculli’s playing now crisp and nimble as he helps to fuel bright, expansive solos from Firmenich on tenor and Acosta at the piano.
A further brace of Piazzolla tunes celebrates the “Revolution” that he brought to tango. “Milonga De La Anunciacion” includes probing solos from Firmenich on tenor and Acosta on piano that owe much to contemporary jazz.
Meanwhile “Zita” is a typically multi-faceted Piazzolla composition, incorporating a rich variety of moods and dynamics and with Firmenich moving between tenor sax and clarinet.
Archive film is seen of Yamila Cafrune singing with the band and the concept of “jazz meets folk music” is illustrated by TJQ’s instrumental performance of “Zamba Para Olivdarte”, introduced by Acosta at the piano and with Firmenich’s tenor stating the vocal melody line before probing more deeply on a more obviously jazz inspired solo. Acosta provides a balancing lyricism with his piano solo, while Da Vita’s liquid electric bass is also featured.
Towards the end of the film Firmenich delivers a personal message to Black Mountain Jazz and the Wall2Wall Festival, thanking Mike Skilton and his team in Abergavenny.
TJQ sign off with “La Oportunidad”, the only original of the set, written by Firmenich and guitarist Nestor Barbieri, with Firmenich featuring on tenor sax. The piece is obviously something of a “signature tune” for Firmenich and the film also includes clips of big band / orchestral performances of the piece by TJQ with the Nisville Big Band’s Tango Project, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, the Ponta Grossa Symphonic Orchestra and the Cantonese Philharmonic.
This is an excellent production that goes far beyond the remit of the average livestream. TJQ’s excellent musical performance, allied to the high quality sound and visuals, would be reason enough to tune in by itself, but the well researched and well presented historical content represents a huge and very impressive bonus, helping to set TJQ’s music in its historical context.
The history of the band itself reveals what great ambassadors they have been for their country and for the music as they have toured successfully all over the world. There have been many ‘fusions’ of jazz and tango over the years, but none of them have sounded quite like TJQ. Let us hope that the group will eventually be able to resume their hectic touring schedule and make that promised return to Abergavenny.
In the meantime don’t miss this excellent production, which compares favourably with the various music documentaries regularly screened on BBC4. This is a commission that considerably exceeds expectations.
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