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Fernando Gonzalez is a 2023 Grammy Award nominee for Best Album Notes for the tango masterpiece Astor Piazzolla: The American Clavé Recordings. I asked him just a few questions about the process of putting it together.
Can you please briefly describe the release for those that may not be familiar with it?
Astor Piazzolla The American Clavé Recordings, is a box set, vinyl and cds, collecting the three albums New Tango master Astor Piazzolla recorded in the United States for Kip Hanrahan’s American Clavé label. It includes Tango Zero Hour (1986), The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango Apasionado) (1987), and La Camorra (1988). Piazzolla recorded the first and last of these albums with his quintet. All but one piece in Tango Zero Hour were pieces that Piazzolla had already recorded, but the quintet had burnished to perfection in years of live playing. La Camorra was his late masterpiece and the last studio recording by the quintet. The Rough Dancer… is a different story. It’s Piazzolla’s “Teo Macero record,” in which Hanrahan, like his mentor had done with Miles Davis, used the studio as an instrument and built a whole album out of a few minutes of original music. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece in Piazzolla’s discography.
Why do you think liners notes were so important to this release?
Growing up in Buenos Aires, liner notes were my introductory texts as I was becoming hooked on jazz. Some educated me by putting the particular album in the continuum of the artist’s career and jazz history (which often led me to other artists and recordings). Others gave me insights about personalities and particular pieces. Most importantly, they made me want to hear more of this music.
Naturally, all that is what I have in mind when writing liner notes.
In the case of Astor Piazzolla—a foreign artist and radical innovator in a popular genre American audiences were not necessarily familiar—the need for context and historical information was especially significant. Piazzolla’s music, a fusion of elements from disparate styles and genres, and his push-forward, never-back-down approach to criticism reflect his choices in life. Moreover, Piazzolla was not a musical bomb-thrower who came out of nowhere and didn’t know or care about tango traditions. He did. He played within them and at the highest levels—and when he felt that musically was not enough, he moved on.
I’d argue that some of the violent attacks he had to endure from tango fans probably had to do with the fact that they didn’t take rejection well.
As with all great music, Piazzolla’s New Tango can move and tickle you without much extra information; such is its power and beauty. The hope is that with the notes, listeners might hear more layers and nuance and enjoy the music more. That’s always the goal.
What sort of primary material did you have to work with to write the liner notes?
Astor Piazzolla was an exceptional artist for my generation in Buenos Aires. We were interested in rock (jazz came to some of us later). Tango was for old people and tourists—except Astor’s. Fast forward thirty, or forty years, and I’m in the United States, interviewing him, writing liner notes for his albums, establishing friendships with some of his players and, most improbable, translating and annotating his memoirs Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir (Amadeus Press, 2001). I knew Kip Hanrahan and his work well before his Piazzolla association. (And over the years, a professional relationship evolved into a personal friendship.) So, by the time I was called to write these notes, I had had conversations, on and off the record, with Astor, Kip, pianist Pablo Ziegler, and guitarist Horacio Malvicino, and hours of Piazzolla and tango listening.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned while researching this music?
I thought I knew Piazzolla’s story. But in writing these notes, I realized that, intentionally or not, Piazzolla closed a significant circle in his life. And it was in New York, of course, the beloved city of his childhood. Carlos Gardel, tango’s greatest singer, was in New York in 1934 to film El Dia Que Me Quieras (The Day You Love Me) for Paramount. Piazzolla was then a tough, 13-year-old New York kid just beginning to play bandoneon. They meet when Piazzolla’s father asks his son to take a gift to his great idol. After the encounter, Piazzolla becomes Gardel’s translator and guide and even performs with him occasionally. Gardel grows fond of the kid and gets him a cameo (a few seconds of screen time) in El Dia Que Me Quieras.
The moment is captured in one of the most iconic pictures in tango’s history: Gardel and Piazzolla, together in the same frame.
Fast forward to 1988. Piazzolla and his New Tango Quintet record their last album, La Camorra, at Master Sound Astoria, in Astoria, New York. The studio is part of the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex where Gardel shot El Dia Que Me Quieras.
If you win the Grammy, where will you be displaying it?
I’m not thinking about that. This is my second nomination, and I’m happy and grateful that my work has been considered highly by my peers. I didn’t speak English when I arrived in the States to study composition at Berklee. How could I’ve imagined myself writing music journalism or criticism—in English? It’s a crazy, only-in-America story. I’m just allowing myself to enjoy the moment.
What’s next for you?
Helping the extraordinary Cuban pianist, composer, and bandleader Chucho Valdes, 82, finish his memoirs. We’ve been working off-and-on with him on this book for a while, and I want Chucho to see it done.
Also, going back to writing music and producing. As an accidental writer, I’m enormously grateful for these years as a music journalist and critic. But my time is running out to put the lessons learned to good use and get back to creating. Never better than now.
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