Many, many have jumped on the Astor Piazzolla bandwagon. Yo-Yo Ma is only the latest among classical stars--who have also included Gidon Kremer, the Kronos Quartet and John Adams--to have become hopelessly bewitched by the sophisticated, classically conceived but jazz-infused New Tango of the Argentine composer and bandoneon virtuoso. The jazz world loves him as well, and he played with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Gary Burton and Chick Corea. Today, six years after his death, interesting versions of Piazzolla's tangos pour forth from the Baltics, from Britain, from Asia.
But universal as New Tango has become, there exists an authentic Piazzolla style, and one musician better than any other embodies it now. Pianist Pablo Ziegler, a member of Piazzolla's quintet in the '80s, is the reigning New Tango master. He is for Piazzolla what Sviatoslav Richter was for Prokofiev, what Seiji Ozawa is for Takemitsu, namely the interpreter closest to the composer and the style and also a great artist in his own right.
And this week, Ziegler may also be the best-kept secret in town. At least that's how it seemed Tuesday, given the handful of people who turned up for the first of his three-night engagement at the Jazz Bakery, where he was joined by Christopher O'Riley for two-piano Piazzolla arrangements.
Ziegler's arrangements were made two years ago for a collaboration with Emanuel Ax and released as "Los Tangueros" by Sony Classical. They are something special. Although Piazzolla formed jazz-style bands and played in clubs, his was a classical concert music, formally conceived, full of traditional compositional devices (even fugue), and played by the letter of the score.
Though an improvising pianist himself, Ziegler has been scrupulously faithful to the concert hall nature of this music. The arrangements subtly incorporate a great range of pianistic techniques (Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Gil Evans all come to mind, with distant echoes of Chopin and of Schubert's two-piano masterpieces).
As irresistible as Piazzolla's bandoneon playing was (and there was nothing like it--listen to his many recordings), the single timbre of the two pianos is, in its own way, a further revelation. On the one hand, the piano clarifies the counterpoint, the music's relationship to Bach (Piazzolla's idol), its sinew. On the other, the sound of two pianos can be practically symphonic, and the arrangements brilliantly demonstrate the grandeur of this music.
And then there is Ziegler's playing. He is cool, understated and makes everything look easy and natural, although those rumbling left hand figures, those clever glissandos are anything but. Just as a really suave tango dancer seems not to move with feet but on wheels, Ziegler skates the keyboard.
Piazzolla's music is bittersweet, but it should never be allowed to become sentimental, and that requires fine texturing of chords, fluid swinging of the melody and a strong sense of drama. These are all qualities that Ziegler has internalized in a way that no one outside the tradition will ever quite equal.
O'Riley, a classical virtuoso, a striking Chopin and Stravinsky player, is an outsider but one with a lot to offer. He is more overtly jazzy than Ziegler, more flamboyant. But he has an appealing flair, a fabulous technique, and is ultimately a respectful partner.
The Jazz Bakery, an intimate, friendly, acoustically lively space, seemed just about ideal as a venue for Piazzolla and these pianists Tuesday. All, that is, except for the depressingly small audience. This is not something to miss.
Pablo Ziegler and Christopher O'Riley continue tonight at 8:30, $18, Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 275-8961.