You take your chair in a quiet Austin cafe, ordering your drink. The scene is set: An empty floor stage in front of your table, seats ready, instruments waiting. Five men dressed in black calmly make their way to their places on stage. A white-haired man takes up his accordion, and begins.
With the opening solo, you are transported to a cafe in Buenos Aires, surrounded by dancers in flowing crimson skirts and wild roses in their hair. A moment later, a violin enters your sound-scene and you find yourself in a New York nightclub, swaying to the hip improv of jazz. You want to jump to your feet and dance around, but you also want to remain cool sitting at your table, snapping your fingers to the driving beat. Such is the power and exquisite plight in the music of Astor Piazzolla, jazz-tango-classical composer.
If you’ve never heard of Astor Piazzolla, then you are one of perhaps the greater majority who remain unaware of this Argentinian Nuevo Tango composer. Enter Austin Piazzolla Quintet, at your service. Astor Piazzolla was a popular composer in the 1950s-60s-70s, known in the New York music scene for the incorporation in his classical music of jazz and Argentinian dance themes. Austin Piazzolla Quintet specializes, specifically, in performing Astor Piazzolla’s music as well as original compositions by Jonathan Geer, the pianist for the group. APQ focuses heavily on improvisation, which allows each man’s individual talent to shine before returning to the seamless interweaving of instrumental sounds for which the group is known. “You’ll see a lot of people who interpret [Piazzolla’s music] just as classical music, straight off the page, and it’s so soulless,” James Anderson, a classically trained violinist and founder of the group, says. “A lot of times the bass and the piano will be playing off the page and whoever has the melody is really flourishing around with it and being really free with it and it kind of goes back and forth. There’s this kind of ebb and flow to it.”
The group initially received much attention from Austin’s dance community, but are clear that they mean to remain faithful to Piazzolla’s primarily musical audience. “We played Esquina Tango [a dance organization in Austin] and people went crazy,” says Anderson. “Especially the dancers latched on to it and kept asking us to play… One thing we’ve come to realize is that dance groups are not necessarily something we don’t want to play, but that’s not what we want to be. We’re not a dance group that does dances. We want to be a concert group and if people want to dance to it that’s great.”
The Austin Piazzolla Quintet is a veritable musical match made in heaven – these men, who are more brotherhood than band, have come together in a lightning-strike rarity of circumstances. “I moved here, and it was kind of my idea to put the group together. It was something I had been wanting to do for awhile, being a fan of Piazzolla’s music. And I moved here, put an ad out on Craigslist – then Jon [Geer] answered the ad,” says Anderson. It snowballed from there. Geer laughs, “It’s kind of amazing. Honestly. I was just kind of looking around.” With Geer came the convenience of a resident composer and provider of rehearsal space and recording technology. After asking several musician friends for a recommendation of a good accordion player, Anderson stumbled on the name of Mike Maddux. Maddux joined the group soon after and was later followed by guitarist Chris McQueen and bassist Pat Harris, who each joined the group based on recommendations as well.
There is a transformative quality about Piazzolla’s music. The music the band plays has an antiquated feel; the listener almost wishes for the grainy quality of vinyl to accompany the musical flavors of APQ. Jonathan Geer brilliantly taps into Piazzolla’s psyche in his own compositions as he sculpts his own creations in a similar style. “He’s [Piazzolla] got a lot of little motifs that you kind of hear over and over again. I started trying to create something in that same style, just looking at the scores of his, see how he created certain sounds. I try to emulate that a little bit while still making it my own sound but in that genre.” Geer’s modesty is deceiving; so closely has Geer been able to access Piazzolla’s style that parts of his own compositions are, at times, indistinguishable from those of Piazzolla. The men remain casually cool in their music-making, which is perhaps why it is just so darn fun to listen to the Austin Piazzolla Quintet. “Something we’ve talked about from the beginning was that we didn’t want … to play classical music, we wanted to play tangos in the way that he [Piazzolla] wanted,” says Anderson. If these musicians are reverent of anything in Piazzolla’s music, it is to be irreverent and maintain the grittiness of Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango. Geer points out, “Much of the music is not on the page itself – you cannot notate how to have that dirt in there.”