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City of flowers and exhaust fumes, Buenos Aires is like a beautiful, bankrupt widow who chain-smokes cigarettes she can’t afford anymore. An old lover, Carlos Gardel, smiles wistfully at her from billboards and marquees, and also from T-shirts and ashtrays in souvenir-shop windows. Ever since the legendary tango singer’s death in a 1936 plane crash, Gardel has been the city’s patron saint, ruling the hearts of generations of porteños, the natives of Argentina’s capital. Though tango’s golden age ended decades ago, “Gardel sings better every day,” as the saying goes. Even now, his fierce, heart-blasted songs—drifting from cab radios and open windows—color the downtown racket as much as the honking traffic and cafe chatter. Still, when this insomniac city finally gets to sleep just before dawn, the music that haunts its dreams and soothes its nightmares is not that of the forever-young Gardel, but of an old man who died last year. His name was Astor Piazzolla, and he was tango’s other—many would argue supreme—genius.

Unlike his idol, Gardel, who was a Valentino with the voice of Caruso, Piazzolla never sang a note, and he wasn’t known for his smile. A cranky, elitist intellectual, he was more likely to be mistaken for a rumpled professor than a revolutionary musician. Armed with a bandoneon (the button accordion that’s tango’s signature instrument) and a classical music education, Piazzolla transformed a stale genre drowning in its own melancholic nostalgia. He took tango—born in bordellos, bred in smoky nightclubs and ballrooms, and finally bled dry in pantomimes for tourists—and invented his own version. Piazzolla’s new synthesis stretched and often shattered the old form; his was an aural equivalent of Italian futurist Gino Severini’s kaleidoscopic, abstract painting of a couple locked in a tango. No crass popularizer, Piazzolla raised the music to difficult new heights while retaining its roots. Though he brought tango into the world’s great concert halls, his solos still echoed every knife-thrust of their street-corner origins.

But for some, his achievement remained pure blasphemy. Many a porteño taxi driver refused to call his music “tango” at all: It had no lyrics, no simple dance rhythms, and was tainted with jazzlike improvisations and classical pretensions. Years ago, one irate cabbie, spotting Piazzolla driving on a crowded street, blocked his car and cursed the traitor’s nuevo tango, as it came to be known.

Piazzolla’s death didn’t draw the 35,000 spectators who thronged Gardel’s funeral, but it has spawned this era’s memorial to departed musicians: a slew of compact-disc reissues. Most of the U.S. releases have paid tribute to the twilight of Piazzolla’s six-decade career, when his genius, so long crabbed by years of exile, finally reached full bloom. The peak of his incredible autumn, Tango: Zero Hour, highlights The Late Masterpieces, a boxed set featuring the trio of recordings made by his greatest band during the late ’80s in New York City.

Tango: Zero Hour brings full circle a musical odyssey that began in New York during the Roaring ’20s, when Piazzolla grew up in a family of Argentine emigrés. Early on, he showed interest in jazz, but he was given a bandoneon on his 12th birthday, and he fell for the sad, wheezy sound of the instrument, a hybrid of the accordion and concertina. Learning Bach on bandoneon, the child prodigy began playing tangos as a lark in between grueling classical lessons.

Led by Gardel, tango music was riding a wave of international popularity. What had begun as choreographed knife-fights between pimps in Buenos Aires slums was now danced by chic, tuxedoed crowds in New York and Paris. Piazzolla’s burgeoning talent landed him a role in a movie starring Gardel, who offered the teen-ager a spot in his orchestra. Piazzolla’s father refused to let his only son go, and less than a year later, Gardel’s plane crashed over Colombia during a world tour. Nevertheless, the meeting with Gardel was a turning point: From then on, tango was Piazzolla’s passion.

In the late ’30s, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires, where he became the arranger of a popular tango orchestra. His stubborn iconoclasm was already evident. He was the first bandoneon player to stand while performing: “I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” he declared. And he still couldn’t get rid of the classical bug. In 1954, a symphony he wrote for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic won him a scholarship to study in Paris.

As a student of Nadia Boulanger (who also tutored Aaron Copland), he was soon applying modern classical techniques to the traditional tango. Back in Buenos Aires in the late ’50s, Piazzolla formed his own band and declared war on the old styles. With his New Tango Quintet (with bass, piano, guitar, and violin) he banned the role of the singer and made his bandoneon the lead voice of a music that had never been heard before.

On top of a pulsing beat that exploded tango’s tired 2/4 rhythms, he combined classical structure with improvised riffs into strange, often surreal, street symphonies. He explored percussive sounds, using the side of his bandoneon like a bongo while his violinist tapped out sly replies and inside jokes. With its cacophony of whistles and sirenlike wails, Piazzolla’s music expressed the mood of modern Buenos Aires, similar to Duke Ellington’s multilayered, onomatopoetic evocations of Harlem. One thing was clear: This was no mere dance music.

Piazzolla’s new fans came from a young generation bored with their parents’ quaint old tangos of doomed love. They had inherited a country wrecked by years of fascist governments and ripe for military leaders to exploit the political and economic chaos; what this generation heard in Piazzolla’s music was their own feelings: anger, anxiety, and fear, and also the irony and humor with which porteños faced everyday life.

By the end of the ’60s, Piazzolla still had legions of detractors that now included Argentina’s military government, which attacked the avant-garde composer for tinkering with tango, a national symbol. Censorship was followed by death threats, and in 1974, Piazzolla left Buenos Aires for Paris. It was during this decade-long exile that he garnered worldwide renown that rivaled Gardel’s. He composed film soundtracks, wrote concertos, and toured extensively, visiting his native country only to perform. He finally returned to Buenos Aires in the mid-’80s, when Argentina was returned to democracy under Raúl Alfonsín. By then, Piazzolla was more accepted, and one radio station even used his best-known song, “Adios Noniño,” as theme music for its news broadcasts.

In March 1986, Piazzolla brought his New Tango Quintet and a batch of new compositions to New York to record Tango: Zero Hour, named for the hour after midnight, as Piazzolla explained, “an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.” The result is one of those rare works in which an artist, afforded the grace and wisdom of old age, rejects the easy impulse to reflect on past triumphs. Instead, the 65-year-old Piazzolla decided to make what he called “the record I can give to my grandchildren and say, “This is what we did with our lives, this is how complex we were.’ ” And, for once, you can trust the artist as well as the tale.

Opening with an incantation of amplified, distorted cafe chatter chilled by a whistle to silence, Tango: Zero Hour is as much pyschodrama as music, a ferocious suite that pushes Piazzolla’s fire-and-ice themes to their extremes. Here is the essence of tango’s spleen, purged of all nostalgia, its lush romanticism constantly undercut with sharp incriminations. His bandoneon screams like a wounded animal one moment and, in the next, launches into a lecture on the anatomy of melancholy. Fernando Suarez Paz’s violin plays devil’s advocate to Piazzolla’s broodings on lust and loneliness. Melodies are caressed and then strangled. At once sentimental and cynical, like a porteño describing a wild night on the town, this is urban music to the core, but more specifically, the music of Buenos Aires. Never did Piazzolla and his band play with such exhausting intensity and sheer abandon. In staking out its own exotic emotional landscape, Tango: Zero Hour belongs on the shelf with other modernist blues classics of the soul’s red-light district, such as Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Tango: Zero Hour made Piazzolla a star of the emerging worldbeat scene, and he played sold-out shows around the globe to audiences of new listeners. His songs were featured in the Broadway hit Tango Argentina; he collaborated with art music groups like the Kronos Quartet and was hailed by rockers from Mick Jagger to Camper Van Beethoven.

In his next work, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, Piazzolla allowed himself to look back on his boyhood inspirations. Composed for a stage musical based on stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the 1987 recording tells a minihistory of tango, from its origins in the slums of late-19th-century Buenos Aires to the glitter of Gardel’s reign to Piazzolla’s own reinvention of the form. Lacking the studio polish of Tango: Zero Hour, The Rough Dancer captures the tango’s roughneck, cruel spirit, what Piazzolla called “music meant to be played by half-drunk musicians in a bordello.” With short, punchy squeeze-box songs like “Butcher’s Death” and “Knife Fight,” it is the most accessible music of his ’80s period.

The final record included in The Late Masterpieces proved to be the swan song for his quintet. Recorded in 1988, La Camorra: The Solitude of Passionate Provocation (by now the album titles were as baroque as the music) was a failed attempt to surpass the fiery grandeur of Zero Hour. Without that work’s manic-depressive verve, the dense La Camorra breathes a kind of burnt sienna ambience all too reflective—fine for an old master, but unworthy of his best work.

The Late Masterpieces serves as an essential introduction to Piazzolla’s provocative art, but it misses the song that he is most loved and remembered for in his home country. In 1959, he composed the haunting “Adios Noniño” (“Goodbye Papa”) after the death of his father. This infamous instrumental tango was Piazzolla’s most tender composition and most memorable melody; it remained his favorite song. “Adios Noniño” can be heard on the recently released The Lausanne Concert (Milan) in an extended, elegiac version with an aching pathos that Gardel would have recognized. It was recorded at a performance in Switzerland in 1989, during Piazzolla’s final European exile (which had been spurred by the election of Peronist President Carlos Saúl Menem). Living in Paris again, Piazzolla made several attempts to start a new sextet, then decided to try to reunite his old quintet. Shortly afterward, he had a stroke from which he never recovered.

On the day Piazzolla died, Buenos Aires went about her usual business. The immortal Gardel could still be heard singing from the garages and the taxis and the open windows. But that night, after the sad news got around, many porteños there and around the world went to sleep with the rueful bandoneon sigh of “Adios Noniño” in their ears.