Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra Looks to Link Jazz and Tango

Jazz at Lincoln Center has always had an educational edge to its concerts, but now Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra are teaching more obscure lessons.

Mr. Marsalis has been turning toward Latin American music recently, and there have been good concerts of Afro-Cuban jazz. But on May 3 Mr. Marsalis and the orchestra, collaborating with the young Buenos Aires-based Orquesta El Arranque, took a stab at a much less codified idea: the link between jazz and tango.

The facts are clear enough. There was a tango craze in America in 1913, and tango was part of the heavy Latin American influence on early jazz. Jelly Roll Morton and Willie Smith, among others, used it. Since its beginnings, tango has acquired a more European patina, and rates a footnote in most jazz histories. There are no good books, much less working bands, exploring its West African roots or its jazz-tinctured branches.

Mostly, drums are not used in tango and that fact alone would seem to make common ground with swing rhythm hard to come by.

But there are connections. Tango has its own parallel to swing, the rhythmic comportment called canyenge (from the Kongo term ``to melt’‘). Gillespie, that great ambassador, also made a much lesser- known recording in 1956 with Oswaldo Fresedo’s tango orchestra.

Ted Nash, one of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s saxophonists and arrangers, recently formed his own jazz-tango group, Odeon. In the May 3 concert the two musics found their common ground, a few times anyway.

The jazz orchestra began gingerly, playing Ellington and the early 20th-century Argentine composer Julio de Caro rearranged into jazz at a leisurely tempo, with hints of tango rhythm built in. But the blending began in earnest when El Arranque came onstage.

Mr. Nash’s arrangement of Gillespie’s ``Night in Tunisia’‘ began with solo bandoneon, opened up into orchestrations using the clipped tango rhythm, and with a barely perceptible shift turned over into swing in its second chorus. El Arranque’s violinists scratched the strings below the bridge, and its bandoneon players, looking for canyenge, rapped on their instruments; there was a unique rhythmic density.

A version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Crave” combined tango rhythm section arrangements and horn section arrangements by Mr. Marsalis.

The tango ``Nocturna’‘ included a muscular habanera bass line. It was a perfect platform for both sides of the rhythmic divide. Clarinets were basic to tango’s 19th-century beginnings but had disappeared from the form by the 1920’s; in that light, Victor Goines’s clarinet accompaniment to El Arranque in ``Aerotango’‘ was a historical rapprochement.

The evening ended with ``Suite Borgeana,’‘ written by El Arranque’s first violinist Ramiro Gallo, and it was impressive, with a wide, shifting modernist vocabulary. Finally, Mr. Marsalis’s own Concerto Grosso, promised to be a 20-minute work in full, was represented only by its second movement.

Using both orchestras, it perfectly represented Mr. Marsalis’s composing style within the frame of tango: much lighter humored than Mr. Gallo’s brooding work, with quickly shifting strains, incorporating the jazz conventions of the blues form, mambolike piano figures, and four-bar trade-offs among soloists.

It was a night of highly arranged music, and some improvisation would have been welcome. But Mr. Marsalis’s piece and all that preceded it was a case of good music following good programming, an idea that actually yielded something new.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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