FOOTWORK: “When I dance with my wife, she says, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Argentine tango has a strong tradition. Which is both good and bad news for Bernardo Monk, the 30-year-old Berklee-educated reed player and composer who brings his MassTango production of music and dance to the Somerville Theatre this Saturday night.
If you want to get technical, Monk shouldn’t even be playing tango. His main instruments — the soprano and alto saxophones — have never been part of the tradition. But he also identifies himself as a jazz musician, and as he tells me over tea and cake at Trident Booksellers & Café on Newbury Street, “For a jazz lover, if you don’t try to break the rules, it’s not worth it.”
Plenty of jazz musicians play, or have written, tangos, but for jazz instrumentation. Monk’s new Ponele la firma (roughly “Take that to the bank”) goes back to what many think of as traditional Argentine format: violin, bass, piano, and, of course, bandoneón, the button-accordion-like instrument that has become a signature of the music. The bandoneón’s warm, huffing tones (somewhere between harmonium and organ), its attack, and its harmonic scheme are so identified with the music that, as Monk says, “If you heard a bandoneón playing with Aerosmith, you’d think, ‘This is tango.’ ”
For some listeners, the sound of Ponele la firma will conjure another association: Astor Piazzolla, the 20th-century genius of tango who revolutionized the form. Piazzolla was a classically trained bandoneón player who studied with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and introduced the contemporary classical vocabulary to tango. The reaction was at first almost violent. “He was almost like a musical terrorist!”, Monk says, laughing. To this humble folk music he was introducing the language of Stravinsky and Messiaen and Milhaud. Some people had the same reaction that a generation of jazz musicians had to Ornette Coleman’s playing the blues.
On Ponele la firma, Monk takes a similarly free approach, but instead of Stravinsky, he brings in Charlie Parker and Coltrane. Throughout, you can hear the syncopated 4/4 rhythm and folk-like melodies that for many listeners define tango. Pieces like the title track and “Troesma” unfold with the languid drama, lurching rhythms, and romantic string parts that you might associate with Last Tango in Paris or Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango. “Arriba!” is a romantic ballad sung by Noelia Moncada, and Monk himself takes a couple of rustic vocal turns backed by acoustic guitar. And there are a couple of jaunty milongas — the old-fashioned 2/4 form of the tango. But most often the pieces on Ponele la firma expand on traditional forms with solo passages and abrupt changes in mood and tempo. The last tune on the album, “Altohólico,” breaks from its folk melody for an alto solo over jazz piano chords. “Troesma” features a skittering avant-bowed bass cadenza by Juan Pablo Navarro that wouldn’t be out of place on a John Zorn album.
Monk laughs when he remembers. “I saw him do it and I said, ‘Okay, I want that! I want you to do that!’ And that’s great. When you start writing for people, you know how they play. That’s something Duke Ellington said. I think part of the success of what I do is about knowing the player.” Navarro is a jazz player, but the bandoneón on the tune is played by the esteemed Argentine tango artist Néstor Marconi. “I told him, ‘Maestro, do whatever you want, because I know your style will fit, I just want you to finish it this way.’ That tune is one of my best musical portraits, I think, because it has a little bit of everything.”
Unlike, say, Ellington’s portraits of Louis Armstrong or Bert Williams, Monk’s are self-portraits. Born in Buenos Aires to a musical family (“Everyone is a musician”), he moved here in 2001 to study at Berklee, joined by his wife, the tango dancer Fernanda Cajide. She’ll be featured at Saturday’s performance, along with the dance group BoSoma, which has choreographed one of Monk’s tunes.
Monk says that even with his extended forms, the dance rhythms are the backbone, and he likes to keep solos tight and “precise” in his tango pieces, preferring the “trading” of eight-, four-, and two-bar breaks to longish solos. “A friend of mine, his father said, ‘Watch the dancers’ feet. If they’re moving okay, you’re playing okay.’ ” And, I add, the dancers are improvising too. “Yes, they’re improvising, but if you’re playing with a few cats, you’re responding to what you’re hearing — your ear as a listener and a musician is different from your ear as a dancer. And that’s one of the problems I have with my wife! When I dance with her, she says, ‘What are you doing?’ And I say, ‘But listen to the violins.’ ‘Don’t worry about the violins, worry about the bass!’ But I can’t just listen to that boom-boom-boom! So it’s very interesting. And she’s very musical, but when it’s about dancing, it’s about the beat. Eventually I understood that.”