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A New Yorker revolutionizes tango in Astor Piazzolla musical 'This Is Not Tango'

The production opens at SubCulture on June 22 for five performances.
Jo Jofre rocking the bandoneon, which Astor Piazzolla also played.Provided


Leave it to a New Yorker to give tango a sensational new spin.

When Astor Piazzolla burst onto the music scene in the mid-20th century, it was with a style that blended his native Argentinian tango with his upbringing in the cultural melting pot of NYC.

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The composer and musician infusion of jazz and classical styles gave rise to its own genre: nuevo tango. It was so different from traditional tango that a naysayer once famously quipped to Piazzolla, “That’s not tango,” hence the title of the new production based on his career, That’s Not Tango — Astor Piazzolla, A Life in Music, coming to SubCulture for five performances beginning June 22.

“Piazzolla didn’t write music for dance; he said he made it to be listened to,” says co-creator Lesley Karsten. “He had bigger ideas for the form.”

New York City-based Karsten, a documentary filmmaker, pianist and singer, became a Piazzolla fan some 20 years ago, not long after his death in 1992.

“He lived next door to a synagogue and heard klezmer,” she explains of his life in Lower Manhattan in the 1920s. “He heard the jazz coming out of Harlem, he heard his father’s tango records, and later when he heard a pianist playing Bach it enraptured him. He created music that was distinctly his, yet it is so universal in its appeal.”

Perhaps that’s why Piazzolla’s music has yet to become a thing of the past. Musicians from jazz great Gerry Mulligan to cellist Yo-Yo Ma have performed Piazzolla’s compositions, and YouTube clips of his performances have been played over 10 million times.

In keeping with Piazzolla’s style, “This Is Not Tango” is neither a musical nor a biography but a fusion that blends play-like stretches interspersed with performances by JP Jofre — who, like Piazzolla, is a master bandoneón (a square-built button accordion) player — pianist Brandt Fredriksen and Latin Grammy-winning violinist Nick Danielson.

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The tango dance style is described as a conversation between a man and a woman, hence its passionate back-and-forth “discourse.” This plays into an unexpected element of “That’s Not Tango” — Karsten herself stars a gender-swapped Piazzolla.

“What I was really writing about was the androgyny of the soul,” explains Karsten. “The soul isn’t male or female, how can it be? Organically, not by design, it does fit with the current gender identity conversation.”

In his lifetime, Piazzolla himself also transcended conformity: The son of Italian immigrants grew up speaking English, not Spanish, the language of his birthplace. “His music is just so extraordinarily rich,” enthuses Karsten. “It’s an amalgam of all that it is to be human.”

"That’s Not Tango”
Wednesday, June 22: 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 23: 7:30 p.m.
Friday, June 24: 8 p.m.
Saturday, June 25: 3 p.m., 8 p.m.
SubCulture, 45 Bleecker St.
Tickets $35-$40

 

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