For many, the word tango conjures full-contact dance and music on the accordion — actually a bandoneón, or German concertina — that's equal parts sultriness and late-night despair. Then, a bit more than twenty years ago, something new was added to the picture when stor Piazzolla's music began to spread around the world from Argentina. Piazzolla was a bandoneón player who wanted to become a classical composer and went to study in France. His music, instrumental and vocal, mixed tango rhythms with harmonies that could have come out of Stravinsky or Poulenc, full of devices like tango fugues.

Piazzolla's mixture didn't go over so well in Argentina initially — he was beaten up on the street by traditionalists on one occasion — but it turned out that his Quinteto Tango Nuevo gave new life to a dance music genre from an era whose other styles are frozen in time. Not a week goes by now without the release of a new tango album, played by ensembles ranging from severe German wind quintets to Argentine rockers.

Until recently, however, this new diversity of tango fusions did not involve jazz; the sinuous, melancholy lines of Piazzolla's tangos sounded as if they were improvised but in fact were almost entirely written out. The situation has changed with Pablo Ziegler and his Quintet for New Tango.

In Piazzolla's later years, Ziegler — himself Argentine and classically trained — was the pianist in Quinteto Tango Nuevo. But though his group's name justifiably claims direct descent from Piazzolla, Ziegler does not approach Piazzolla as a slavish revivalist. Instead, he applies the resources of jazz, specifically bebop, to Piazzolla's New Tango music. He plays a few of Piazzolla's compositions, opening them up in various ways, but most of his pieces are originals.

Ziegler's imagination in working jazz into the tango framework is impressive in scope. He builds on the harmonic complexity of Piazzolla's lines, adding the extended harmonies of bebop. He carves out space within the structure of the classic tango, adding long piano excursions at the ends of musical phrases, or free introductions or interludes. And Ziegler reverses the roles of piano and bandoneón: in Piazzolla's quintet the bandoneón was the lead and the piano the rhythmic supporter, while with Ziegler it is the bandoneón that maintains the link with tango's classic rhythms and moods while Ziegler's piano pushes at the boundaries of form.

Ziegler's marriage of jazz and tango may be as royal as the classical-tango one at which Piazzolla officiated. And there's going to be one more musical marriage to celebrate when Ziegler comes to Rackham Auditorium on Friday, March 30. The flexibility of his style makes it ideally suited to collaboration, and he has worked with musicians ranging from Argentine jazz guitarist Quique Sinesi to classical pianist Emanuel Ax. The Rackham show will feature Claudia Acuña, the charismatic young Chilean jazz singer whose repertoire ranges from Latin jazz to boppish interpretations of American standards. The potential meeting of the minds is exciting indeed, as is the way the pulsing heart of the tango continues to push out its rich liquid into the world's musical arteries.

[Review published March 2007]