Tango talk

Bernardo Monk steps out
By JON GARELICK  |  January 23, 2007

FOOTWORK: “When I dance with my wife, she says, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Argentine tango has a strong tradition. Which is both good and bad news for Bernardo Monk, the 30-year-old Berklee-educated reed player and composer who brings his MassTango production of music and dance to the Somerville Theatre this Saturday night.

If you want to get technical, Monk shouldn’t even be playing tango. His main instruments — the soprano and alto saxophones — have never been part of the tradition. But he also identifies himself as a jazz musician, and as he tells me over tea and cake at Trident Booksellers & Café on Newbury Street, “For a jazz lover, if you don’t try to break the rules, it’s not worth it.”

Plenty of jazz musicians play, or have written, tangos, but for jazz instrumentation. Monk’s new Ponele la firma (roughly “Take that to the bank”) goes back to what many think of as traditional Argentine format: violin, bass, piano, and, of course, bandoneón, the button-accordion-like instrument that has become a signature of the music. The bandoneón’s warm, huffing tones (somewhere between harmonium and organ), its attack, and its harmonic scheme are so identified with the music that, as Monk says, “If you heard a bandoneón playing with Aerosmith, you’d think, ‘This is tango.’ ”

For some listeners, the sound of Ponele la firma will conjure another association: Astor Piazzolla, the 20th-century genius of tango who revolutionized the form. Piazzolla was a classically trained bandoneón player who studied with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and introduced the contemporary classical vocabulary to tango. The reaction was at first almost violent. “He was almost like a musical terrorist!”, Monk says, laughing. To this humble folk music he was introducing the language of Stravinsky and Messiaen and Milhaud. Some people had the same reaction that a generation of jazz musicians had to Ornette Coleman’s playing the blues.

On Ponele la firma, Monk takes a similarly free approach, but instead of Stravinsky, he brings in Charlie Parker and Coltrane. Throughout, you can hear the syncopated 4/4 rhythm and folk-like melodies that for many listeners define tango. Pieces like the title track and “Troesma” unfold with the languid drama, lurching rhythms, and romantic string parts that you might associate with Last Tango in Paris or Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango. “Arriba!” is a romantic ballad sung by Noelia Moncada, and Monk himself takes a couple of rustic vocal turns backed by acoustic guitar. And there are a couple of jaunty milongas — the old-fashioned 2/4 form of the tango. But most often the pieces on Ponele la firma expand on traditional forms with solo passages and abrupt changes in mood and tempo. The last tune on the album, “Altohólico,” breaks from its folk melody for an alto solo over jazz piano chords. “Troesma” features a skittering avant-bowed bass cadenza by Juan Pablo Navarro that wouldn’t be out of place on a John Zorn album.

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