Pablo Ziegler: Making the Music Dance
Pablo Ziegler, who has been the de facto source for the interpretation of Piazzolla’s music for over twenty years, is an important composer of nuevo tango in his own right. Now based in Brooklyn (though he’s constantly traveling to perform all over the planet), Ziegler has a particularly strong affinity for improvisation and loves to mix tango and jazz.
A conversation in Ziegler’s Brooklyn apartment
June 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Tracing the origins of tango is nearly as impossible as tracing the origins of jazz or determining the earliest string quartet. Claimed as a national tradition by both Argentina and Uruguay, even its most prominent early musical exponent, Carlos Gardel, purported to be from each of these countries at different times in his life. But now, tango—which was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 as the result of a joint proposal by these two nations—belongs to the whole world. Musicians from Finland to Japan compose and perform music in this genre, putting their own spins on it; some have even mixed tango with electronica and DJs.
Although the origin of tango itself remains elusive, tango as a global phenomenon that incorporates and absorbs a broad range of influences can be attributed to the vision of the eclectic Argentinian composer and band leader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). Piazzolla, who fell in love with jazz during his teenage years in New York City, began incorporating saxophones and electric guitars into his music in the 1950s. A student of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, he also composed tango-based works for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestra, as well as for more than three dozen films. Considered an avant-garde radical at first, Piazzolla went on to become an international sensation, and since his death his compositions have become extremely popular among classical instrumentalists. The results have been extremely mixed since the performance practice of this music goes far beyond just reading the notes on the page. For over twenty years, the person who has been the de facto source for the interpretation of Piazzolla’s music has been Pablo Ziegler, who served as the pianist in Piazzolla’s final quintet for over a decade and appeared on such seminal albums as Tango: Zero Hour, Tristezas de un Doble A, and La Camorra.
An important composer of nuevo tango in his own right, Ziegler, who now lives in Brooklyn but is constantly traveling to perform all over the planet, has a particularly strong affinity for improvisation. No two performances of his music are ever the same and he is constantly reworking and re-arranging his compositions even as he writes new ones. He encourages musicians to find their own voice whether he’s working with jazz greats like Regina Carter, Stefon Harris, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Paquito D’Rivera or performing his arrangements with classical musicians such as Emmanuel Ax, Christopher O’Riley, Orpheus, or the members of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, who he had just played with in New Zealand when we spoke with him. For Ziegler, having more freedom makes the music more exciting:
I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.
Frank J. Oteri: One of the ways you explore variety in your music is that you lead at least five different groups.
Pablo Ziegler: Probably more than that. Now I discovered another group in Wellington, New Zealand. I was playing with a chamber orchestra there just a couple of weeks ago and the leaders, the string leaders, play together as a string quartet and they know my music very well. But after a rehearsal one night, I went to some club where there’s an amazing guy playing accordion. For that reason, I invited him to play one tune, “Oblivion,” [with us] for an encore. He’s an incredible musician and has very good taste. Usually I play with bandoneón, which is what Piazzolla played. But no matter what instrument you play, if you have good taste, you make everything sound beautiful. That is the person that we are always looking for.
FJO: In one of your groups you feature a cello; another one has electric guitar and drums.
PZ: Yes. And in October in Japan [my group will be] a classical piano trio with piano, violin, and cello; that’s it. I’m very excited about all these combinations because I came from the classical world but, at the same time, from the jazz world.
I was studying in the music conservatory for ten years. I got my degree from there. I suppose, after that, I was preparing for a classical piano career, going to competitions. But suddenly I discovered jazz music and, at the age of 15, I started to play jazz. So I said bye-bye to classical competition and whatever.
Now I’m very happy that happened to me, because I could play in different ways. I think of all those classical piano players, competing [over] who is playing “La Campañera” or “The [Flight of the] Bumblebee” the fastest, repeating the same program for years. I was interested in jazz and then in composition, so I became a kind of crossover guy in between tango music, jazz music, and classical music.
FJO: Your career path was somewhat unusual. You were already relatively established as a composer—you had written scores for films and television—when you became the pianist in Astor Piazzolla’s quintet. You were successful in your own right, but you wound up becoming a sideman in someone else’s group and you did that for more than a decade.
PZ: Yeah, it was a lot. Astor Piazzolla was a genius—not only as a composer, but also as a bandoneón player. Incredible. I remember all my ten years playing with Piazzolla in Europe, since the very first time in 1979 through 1988. Whenever we went to Europe and played in a new town, we were a little afraid since this is contemporary tango. But, year by year, that music became very, very hot.
I was composing before I was playing with him, but Piazzolla changed my mind in the way to compose, about your country and your experience, not composing a kind of universal music with no roots. But after Piazzolla, when I started to compose new music, I was thinking of my life and my memories, the happiness or sad moments that I had in Buenos Aires.
After Piazzolla dissolved the quintet, I created my own group without bandoneón, a quartet with piano, bass, guitar, and drums—like a jazz quartet. And I was composing new tango compositions for that quartet. My idea was that if I played with bandoneón, it would have to be someone who played with me only as a guest. But when Piazzolla died, the Argentine embassy, that was supporting a world-wide tour, said I had to have a bandoneón for Piazzolla’s pieces. That was a step back for me. When Piazzolla died, he became very famous worldwide, especially in the classical world.
FJO: That’s what always happens. In classical music, when you die you’re famous, but rarely when you’re alive. And now every classical player wants to play his music.
PZ: You’re right. Finally this music went more to the classical side than the jazz side, which is why I’m now creating more music for these kinds of classical groups—piano trio, string quartet with piano. But I really like to improvise in all my groups. Even with the guys in the classical world, it’s one of the fresh elements that you can add to this music.
FJO: You’ve actually worked with quite a few really important jazz players, too. You’ve performed with Branford Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, and Joe Lovano—
PZ: Many times with Regina Carter; she fits fantastic with that. The blend that we have with her! And she loves to play.
FJO: Last year I heard you with Stefon Harris.
PZ: He’s tremendous.
FJO: You said that any musician, if they play tastefully, can perform this music. Are there instruments that don’t work for tango? Could a brass quintet play tango?
PZ: Everything can work. If I can write a very good arrangement, then everything happens. One of my last CDs was with the Metropole Orchestra. It’s kind of crazy crossover between my music and jazz. I was very happy to have that CD in my career with that beautiful orchestra.
FJO: The first track on that disc, “Buenos Aires Report,” is really on the edge; it’s perhaps even more intense than the performance you’ve done of it with your smaller groups.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s intense. I was working with a jazz arranger for that who usually works with the Metropole. I gave him my quartet or quintet arrangement, but I worked very closely [with him].
FJO: So those were not your arrangements; they were done by somebody else?
PZ: It was my arrangement. I told this guy, I’m going to give you my arrangement for the quintet or quartet. You have to orchestrate that, not adding something. And it was exactly in the form of my arrangement.
FJO: So would you say something like, “I want to have flute over here”?
PZ: No, they were very free, but they sent me all the arrangements and I said, “Oh, this is interesting. I like it. Just print it.” That’s it. We rehearsed with the Metropole for one week. It was a very intensive rehearsal with a British conductor, a very young guy. He’s very good; he knows that orchestra very well. It’s a superior orchestra; it’s like 80 or 90 guys. And this music for them was very challenging. There’s a tune called “Blues Porteña” which has kind of a tango groove with some blues. But the final rehearsal was very good. And that CD is take one, because it was the concert night. Netherlands Television shot the whole concert. When they sent it to me and I heard it, [I said], “This is fantastic. We have to do a CD with this!” It was a long negotiation, more than one year, because it’s very big. But finally we did it.
FJO: So when you do other gigs with orchestras, do you use those same arrangements?
PZ: No, I have my classical arrangements, the arrangements that I did for my CD called Tango Romance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. That is the music arrangement I played a couple of weeks ago with the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.
FJO: Nowadays we’re all connected and we have easy access to just about anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone with no background in this music will automatically be able to feel it.
PZ: For that reason I work very hard with orchestras, teaching and coaching them in the way to play the music. All the music is written. I preserve some parts to improvise, but all the articulation is there. I was working three days like crazy with this orchestra. They are very good. But it’s not easy. In some tunes, it’s not easy to understand how the tango groove works with that kind of composition.
FJO: Obviously, for a smaller group, it’s much easier to get the right energy. That’s much harder to pull off when a whole string section is playing the same thing.
PZ: Of course, [even with] poco, più o meno, poco più, blah, blah, blah. This is hard. I know it’s hard for them to dance with me when we play together. But we were playing together.
FJO: But it seems that you don’t conceive of your compositions with a specific instrumentation in mind. “La Reyuela” was the first piece of yours that I fell in love with when I heard it on your album Bajo Cero, scored for just piano, bandoneón, and guitar. Then I heard other recordings of it that you did with different combinations, and they work, too. And I know you’ve also published a solo piano arrangement of it.
FJO: But I wonder about a piece like “La Conexión Porteña.” I can’t imagine it any other way than with that really dissonant electric guitar. For me, that’s one of the key ingredients of it.
PZ: I have [it for] my Classical Quartet with
Hector Del Curto on bandoneón, Jisoo Ok on cello, and Pedro Giraudo on bass. So I have a cello instead of a guitar. And the cellist plays deeee dah dah. I’m learning also from my musicians. “How do you do that? Can you show me?” I discovered the position for that minor second interval for cellists. It’s fantastic. And right now I’m arranging “La Conexión Porteña” for two pianos.
PZ: Yeah, I found a way. I was practicing for my two-piano program. I’m going to play two-piano arrangements again with Christopher O’Riley. We’re going to start the rehearsals next Monday and Tuesday here in Steinway Hall. I [wanted to] add a new piece. So I’m in the middle of the two-piano arrangement. I don’t know if it’s going to be ready on time, but we can play it in the future.
FJO: So how far can you go and have it still be tango?
PZ: I think the Metropole CD is really far away! I remember playing a couple of the tunes on one of the Buenos Aires radio [station’s] tango programs. I told the announcer, who is a very good friend of mine, “I’m bringing something new, but probably your audience is going to kill you.” He played it, but he said, “This is really, really far [out].” I was laughing. This is a new thing. I don’t know. I love contemporary music. I studied composition with guys who were writing really contemporary music.
FJO: So what pieces of yours are the most influenced by what you would consider to be a contemporary music sound world?
PZ: On that [Metropole] CD, “Desperate Dance.” And on [the CD] Buenos Aires Report, another is “Buenos Aires Dark.” We recorded that CD in Europe with my trio: Quique Sinesi on guitar, [Walter] Castro, and me. That trio started more than ten years ago. We had the intention to play just as a piano and guitar duo in Europe, but our manager from Europe started to say, “Everybody’s asking if you’re going to bring some bandoneón player.” So finally we invited Castro. And that really was working fantastically. The final result was very, very good. The people were very happy to have this kind of small trio. The seven-string guitar is kind of a bass guitar plus a regular guitar, so it’s like a quartet with just three musicians.
FJO: To follow up on this idea that you’re taking this music way out, I find it interesting that the name of one of your groups has been called the Classical Tango Quartet. I imagine that’s because there’s a cello in the group, which sounds like “classical music” and there are no drums. But when tango aficionados hear the term “classical tango,” they might think they’re going to hear something that sounds like Carlos Gardel.
PZ: Yeah. I know. I had a long conversation with my managers about how we can put in the mind of the presenters that this is really different music. [Ed. note: The group is now called Quartet for New Tango.] The audience for the traditional tango is not the same audience for this kind of music. We are closer to classical and contemporary jazz than traditional tango. Usually I don’t play in tango festivals because it’s not my place.
FJO: But listeners should be able to hear that your music clearly derives from the earlier tango tradition in much the same way as, if you listen deeply to John Coltrane and the generations of players who have established the sonic paradigm for contemporary jazz, you could still hear the influence of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other earlier jazz.
PZ: Of course.
FJO: Yet when Astor Piazzolla first started performing nuevo tango, which your own music is an extension of, he was treated the same way that conservative jazz listeners treated Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others when they started to play free jazz.
PZ: They didn’t accept it. It was a big change, to move tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. That was Piazzolla’s idea. It’s the same as with Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. They’re beautiful arrangements for dancers. Everybody was dancing. Even me, when I was young. But suddenly bebop appeared and the music was far away from that for dancers. Piazzolla was bebop. He invented something different. But he had very good teachers—Alberto Ginastera. Come on!
FJO: And Nadia Boulanger.
FJO: Plus, something that people talk about a lot less, although he was born in Argentina and wound up back there as an adult, he grew up in New York City. So his formative musical influences as a teenager were happening here in the United States.
PZ: [He heard] more jazz than tango. He really wanted to be a pianist, not a bandoneón player. But his father was a strong influence and gave him this small squishy black instrument. Thank God. He was an amazing bandoneón player.
FJO: And although he was initially considered a radical, 20 years after his death he is embraced as a classic. So what began as something avant-garde is now a tradition that you’re in the position of upholding. Over the last 20 years there have been people who are making music that is in some ways even further away from tango’s origins than what Piazzolla and you have done. I’m thinking of groups like Tanghetto or Gustavo Santaolalla’s Bajafondo, which mix synthesizers, sampling, and heavy beats with tango.
PZ: Well, everybody has the right to mix and do these kinds of experiments. I remember the first time that I heard The Gotan Project, a group from Europe. A Berlin radio program put this on and said, “What do you think about this?” I said it was like disco music with bandoneón and some DJs.
FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that as radical as it sounds initially, in some ways it’s actually very old fashioned, because it has made the music into dance music for a new generation.
PZ: Of course, it’s fantastic that people can dance again the tango in this way. Disco tango. It’s dance music. But that is not music for the concert stage. That’s my opinion. Or my feeling.
FJO: You’ve talked about your music being for the concert hall, but could people dance to it?
PZ: Yes. Here in New York, there are a lot of milongas every night. And I discovered in one of these milongas they have a ballroom for traditional tango and another ballroom for modern tango. So one of my pieces could work for dancing [there]. I think you can dance to some of my first compositions. But I have a lot of tunes now that have asymmetrical rhythms—seven, or fifteen. I don’t know if they can dance to that. It’s more O.K. for classical ballet.
FJO: I know you’re performing with classically trained dancers this summer at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival.
PZ: I’m going to have some collaboration with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, playing with them one of the works that Paul Taylor did with Piazzolla’s music. I think it’s a very good experiment. I love that. Many years ago at a contemporary dance festival in Genoa, we were playing with a group of contemporary dancers and it was fantastic. I also had a really good experience with Piazzolla and the prima ballerinas from La Scala in Milan. We had those guys working with us for one week.
FJO: Now in terms of working with a dance company, there’s always some difficulty for dancers to work with live musicians, especially when the music includes a lot of improvisation. I find this very strange since before there were recordings, dancers always had to find a way to work with live music. But dancers nowadays are used to rehearsing with very specific musical cues.
PZ: It’s impossible to repeat exactly. We are going to play in our way. But the people from this dance company are very excited to do this with live music, because it’s going to change something in the way they dance, so I’m very happy to do this now with Paul Taylor.
FJO: It’s interesting that in addition to performing your own compositions, projects involving the music of Piazzolla are still among your most significant musical activities since you’re considered by many people to be the source for this music.
PZ: Yes, probably, because I played ten years with this guy. I know exactly in what way the musicians, any musician, can play it. What is the exact way to play his music? Piazzolla was very contradictory. [Sometimes] he was playing fast, some tunes, and I’d say, “Why we are playing so fast?” And he’d say, “I don’t like that tanguero rhythm—slow.” But I prefer that kind of groove.
What is the way to play this new tango? I remember the first time that Piazzolla gave me a piano part and said you are free to change it. So that’s what I did. I know the way to bring that to my groups or to classical musicians. It’s not in the sheet music; it’s in his recordings. If you play with sheet music, playing [just] everything written, it’s really a bore, because you don’t know the way to do something different with that, to create some kind of fresh rhythms. It’s the way to move accents, the articulation when you play, and the very fresh manner, very tender with no rush. Most of the classical players play very square and rush. That happens in the very first moment when I start to rehearse with classical musicians. And I stop and say, “Try to dance with me.” I show them the way to dance, even to my music. That is the way to play also, to dance, because the music is going to be more accessible, tender, and fresh.
FJO: But you can’t put that on paper.
PZ: I can put that on paper. In my arrangements, I try to put it in. But I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.
FJO: It really sounds like it’s about feeling it physically, rather than just understanding it intellectually with your eyes.
PZ: I think it’s the same as with Chopin’s music, when he was composing mazurkas, this kind of Polish music. It’s in three-four, but the way you play it is in four; there’s some kind of delay. It adds to this music some kind of space, a little breath in between those rhythms; that is the way to play this music.
FJO: There are people who say that in order to play jazz authentically it has to come from the blues, and that if you don’t have that in your background, you can never really understand how to play this music.
PZ: For that reason the jazz musicians in the United States are really unique compared to jazz in Europe. American jazz musicians have this, their roots are the blues.
FJO: Is there something similar for tango?
PZ: Being an Argentinian player is different than being an American player. If you were born in Buenos Aires, you know how the people walk and talk. It’s tango music. You can see that music in the streets. That is really important in the transmission [of the music]. It is not the same if an American jazz player is playing my music [rather] than an Argentinian guy. But there are very good professionals, and I love this kind of crossover. We are playing music with a lot of roots. It’s very interesting to mix that.
FJO: Well it definitely turns it into something else. That is how music evolves. In fact, here we are sitting in Brooklyn, very far away from Buenos Aires. You have now been living here for a long time, even though you travel around the world so much you basically are living everywhere on the planet at this point. But the audiences you are playing for—whether here or in Japan or Italy or wherever else you’re playing this year—aren’t necessarily going to have that background of walking on the streets of Buenos Aires either.
PZ: No, of course. But when you play in your authentic way, the audience [claps hands once] gets it. They catch something. I know that.
FJO: One could argue that there is a kind of universality to nuevo tango at this point. But I wonder, even though Piazzolla encouraged you to embrace your roots instead of writing music that is—as you put it—universal, something without a firm basis in any particular culture, could you ever imagine writing or playing music that wasn’t culturally specific? Could you imagine playing or writing music again that was not somehow connected to tango?
PZ: That’s a good question. I was composing some kind of malambo music, which is a folk music. I’m not experienced in folk music, but I know the way to write this kind of stuff. But I don’t want to compose in that way because you have to live in the countryside to be part of that music. It’s really different than tango music, which was born in the city. Tangos are urban music, just like jazz. We have the same roots; it’s music that’s coming from the city.
FJO: There are all sorts of other styles of music happening here in Brooklyn right now. Could you see yourself responding musically to any of those scenes?
PZ: I grew up in Buenos Aires. I know that way. My father was a violin player, besides the other things he did, and when he was young he was playing tango music with his violin. And when I was a kid, my father was teaching me the way to play all the traditional tango tunes. So that means the tango music was inside me; I grew up with that music.
FJO: So has being here all these years had any impact on your music at all?
PZ: Of course. Playing with different jazz musicians and classical musicians here has had a big impact on my music. But I’m still trying to try to preserve those roots and playing with that groove. And that works with audiences.