Pablo Aslan and the Art Tango
Bassist Pablo Aslan’s Buenos Aires Tango Standards is an ironic release. The phrase “tango standards” implies that the songs are straightforward cultural tunes, a look at the pervasive style of Argentina. Tango itself implies tight dance rhythms produced by bouncy bandoneons and mournful violins. Aslan’s interpretations, however, belong to a different genre. The exotic feel is there, but this is not dance music. On the disc, Aslan takes eight road-tested hits by tango masters and sketches out basic arrangements, infusing them with bubbly contemporary jazz. These standards are vehicles for improvisation, and on each song, Aslan works toward a new genre that is neither tango nor jazz. The bassist instead presents an amalgamation of Argentinean feel and bebop sensibility: the art tango.
Aslan’s experimentation is a reflection of his resume, which took him from Buenos Aires and the danceable rhythms of his childhood to his current involvement with popular music. He has explored jazz, adding his voice to players such as Joe Lovano, and top 40, with Shakira and Julio Iglesias.
Multi-faceted musicians like Aslan have historically been linked to the tango idiom. When Europeans started exploring Argentina, travelers brought with them classical ideas about music. These traditions were blended with local musical customs to create a sub-genre of tango. This outlook seems tailor-fit for Aslan’s approach. He has taken two established art forms and mixed them together. Instead of using European ideas in tango form, Aslan chose jazz—an American music—to add a new dimension to the songs.
“Bahia Blanca”, the fifth track from Tango Standards, best represents the contrast between the original composition and Aslan’s updated offerings. Written by Carlos Di Sarli in 1957, “Bahia” was originally three minutes of lush string melody—the ubiquitous dotted-eighth, sixteenth note figure is dominant—coupled with sharp bandenoen accents and subtle piano flourishes. Aslan’s version starts with mysterious, late-night notes—a duet between trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli and Aslan on bass. This intro is smoky, and flirts with Di Sarli’s melody, only stating it twice toward the end of the solo. The song doesn’t have any of the spike-heels-on-hardwood aggressiveness of tango. Pianist Abel Rogantini offers up soft, legato chords and slow descending runs instead of punchy rhythms. The strict accents of tango, the truncated pops, are blunted into drummer Daniel Piazzolla’s smooth brush strokes.
From beat one, this is a different Aslan than the one on 2003’s Avantango, a recording filled with traditional tango instruments and rhythmic vocabulary. Though Aslan’s interpretation of tangos written by Astor Piazolla showed signs of future experimentation, Avantango was still very much indebted to tango as dance music.
Aslan’s bass playing is low in the mix on Avantango. The function is an added layer—a supportive role to bandoneon figures or piano rhythms. His characteristic driving sharpness—the sound of horsehair against heavy, tightly wound steel—is there, but it’s not in the forefront. Tango Standards, however, is Aslan as a leader. The bassist is in the spotlight whether providing an introductory vamp or signaling a mid-song change in meter. On this release, Aslan is part of the immediate shape of the music.
His new role is immediately apparent. The first sound heard is his arco bass, a driving two-bar vamp leading into “La Cachila”. Tenor saxophonist Jorge Retamoza takes advantage this metered introduction to lay down pure saxophone aggressiveness. Retamoza’s instrument tricks – dull thuds produced by slapping his tongue against the reed, the screaming uncertainty of multiphonics, altissimo chirps – are not showy. Instead of virtusoic self-indulgence, these musical snippets forward the story, the idea, of tango.
Buenos Aires Tango Standards doesn’t have any outright dance numbers—that would be antithetical to art music—but some songs are built from unmistakable grooves. “De Puro Guapo” and “Tinta Verde” revolve around snare-drum funk beats, heavy on short quips from the high-hat. The rhythm, while not standard tango fare, is a nice contrast to the fluid piano melody of “De Puro”. The resonant ride cymbal barbs of “Tinta Verde” float under Aslan’s vamp and are a nice setup for the song’s floating contrasting sections.
By reinventing standards and choosing to look at tango in a new light, Aslan has given the music more latitude. No longer is tango just for dancing; it can be as effective in a small combo setting with smart improvisers as it is in a large orchestra. While this new form of tango isn’t meant to be popular dance music, Aslan has succeed in bringing a tango idea to jazz and, in the process, bridging the gap between two cultures.