Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh

The Route to This Recording

by Tetsu Saitoh

(Liner Notes of the CD Ausencias)

I released the CD Tetsu Plays Piazzolla in 1990. When I listen to it now, I can point out many places that embarrass me. At the time I very much wanted to become a member of Piazzolla's band. I tried to pass the CD on to him, but it was too late; he was ill in bed. The CD did arrive at his hospital via several intermediaries, but it is unknown whether he listened to it while his mind was still clear. Eight years have passed since then, and during that time I have intermittently formed bands to play Piazzolla's music; but, perhaps because the other members were jazz-oriented musicians, they have all disbanded within six months. While I have fond memories of each band, I think the members tended to be too concerned about their own individual performances, and lacked sufficient knowledge and understanding of the playing of Piazzolla and tango. Moreover, it was difficult even to find band members. I was thinking that the next time I felt a strong desire to play tango, I would have to go to Buenos Aires to play.

Then Ryota Komatsu asked me to play with him. Komatsu, who is eighteen years younger than I am, taught me a lot, including the importance of scores. What made the strongest impact was what he taught me about “tango-ism” in Japan: he helped me realize once again that tango, like jazz and classical music, has a long history in Japan created by many people who have devoted their dreams, passion and lives to this music. Komatsu is the essence of this. At his performances with many young, talented musicians, it seems as if the Piazzolla Nonet had reappeared in present-day Tokyo. During the constantly repeated rehearsals, I was aware of the gap between myself and these people who live for tango. I realized clearly that I had grasped tango only through my musical relationship with individuals such as Piazzolla and Pugliese. When I came to know these musicians, I became quite ashamed of how I'd proudly talked about tango before. It was just at that time that Dr. Noguchi in Osaka asked me to go there and play Piazzolla with my band. At first I decided to refuse, thinking that I would repeat my mistake, but then I came up with an idea: maybe I could do it if the band included Ryota Komatsu. Then again, I thought, "No, I shouldn't be selfish; what if I end up making the same mistake?" Then, "Well, how about keeping the band together for only a month?" And finally I told myself, "This will be my last Piazzolla band in Japan. Then I'll drop out from Piazzolla, because it's impossible to graduate from him." I also thought Piazzolla might get angry with me, saying, "How long are you going to keep playing my music?" This is how the band came into being.

Over a three-week period the band played at Aketa no Mise in Tokyo, in the Yokohama Jazz Promenade, at Neyagawa City Hall and Moriguchi Energy Hall "La Muse Festa" in Osaka, Big Apple in Kobe, Duluth in Matsumoto, Jam in Ohmiya, Romanisches Cafe in Tokyo, and finally Nardis in Kashiwa. At first there were four members; then, at my strong request, Kumiko Kondo (violin) joined us for the last three concerts. All the band members except Ms. Kondo were Scorpios, and the later concerts took place during the time of Scorpio. The last two performances, which were held on my and Ryota Komatsu's birthdays, respectively, were recorded live. The concerts drew large audiences, which is very unusual for performances in which I play as leader. Romanisches Cafe's owner, Mr. Ohki, who loves Piazzolla, told us he would soon be closing down his club. All these things contributed to a greater and greater excitement as the band neared the end of its live performance activity. Then, about a month after the final concert, we came to the studio recording date with no prior rehearsal.

About the Music

Many of these tracks are from the repertoire of Piazzolla's last sextet. I feel a great affinity for this band, which included the pianist Gandini. I sense something special in the compositions and performances of Piazzolla's last years, which sometimes sound almost patched-together. In playing them I hoped to physically understand several things: the physical feeling and the will to keep going that come from extensive use of the yumba two-beat rhythm (the ultimate Pugliese rhythm); the milonga, which makes you feel as if you were dreaming about a vast plain; the melody which proudly, loudly and unhesitatingly sings "wishes"; the need for a technique which can express both pure simplicity and extreme complexity; and, having made your way through the works, the feeling of affirmation and happiness which comes to you when you have finished. The feeling of excess that comes from the last sextet, of going beyond performance, shows that its "desire" is so great that it cannot be fulfilled in its performances. The performances express many things besides performance. This characteristic undoubtedly is shared by all really great artists, no matter what their genre. It conveys not only a romanticism that impatiently asks "All or nothing?", but also the attitude of savoring the moment. This is why we chose some works from the repertoire of the last sextet and played them with the aim of "real excess where excess is called for."

1. Biyuya
A symbolic work for the relaunching of the Piazzolla Quintet. I felt Piazzolla's unwavering confidence in the powerful yumba. The title is a slang word for money.

2. Milonga para Tres
First appeared on the album The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night. It is a beautiful milonga.

3. Contrabajissimo
Piazzolla wrote this for Hector Console. It is his third composition for contrabass. Now I have finally succeeded (self-congratulations!) in recording all three of these compositions.

4. La Muerte del Angel
One of the two works which I commissioned Masami Noda to arrange for the band, the other being "Vibraphonissimo," a duet for contrabass and bandoneon. I met Noda at the Ryota Komatsu concert mentioned above. For that concert he had arranged "Lunfardo," which really impressed me because it sounded like a co-composition with Piazzolla, rather than an arrangement of his music. I was surprised when Noda told me he had heard my album Tetsu Plays Piazzolla and had really wanted to meet me. He often came to our rehearsals, came to most of the concerts listed above, and was also present in the recording and mastering studios. More than just an arranger, he became a good friend of mine. Our relationship seems to be branching out in many directions. Thanks!

5. La Mufa
After this work was released on the album CONTIERTO EN EL PHILHARMONIC HALL DE NUEVE YORK, Piazzolla never recorded it again. A trace of the theme can be heard in “Baires 72.” I have long been attached to this dance composition, the title of which means evil omen or depression.

6. Luna
This is one of the three compositions that Piazzolla wrote for his last sextet. I was happily surprised when I heard that it was based on a composition he wrote for Milton Nascimento, because I had been listening to the music of both Piazzolla and Nascimento. Mitsumasa Saitoh, a music critic, told me that the work for Nascimento was actually based on another composition that Piazzolla had written for himself. So it seems the work has a long history of transition. It is a masterpiece that clearly displays the characteristics, which I mentioned above, of Piazzolla in his last years.

7. La Camorra I
This is like the essence of Piazzolla-rhythm. From Piazzolla's performance, it is impossible to judge which parts are written and which are improvised. This was a big challenge for us. To build the work into the shape it appears in here, we brought together havanera, milonga, yumba, and the steady beat of tango.

8. Imagenes 676
Piazzolla often played at a club called 676. We always played this composition as an encore. Near the end, two contrabass players hit the strings with sticks. Because we played this at the end of a strenuous 90-minute performance of Piazzolla's music, both the musicians and the audience were very open. This can be heard particularly well in this performance, which is the last number of the last concert in the tour.

By TETSU SAITOH, JAN. 26, 1998