The Beautiful Weirdness of Javier Cohen
During the summer months, from about six to nine in the evening, you can watch tango dancers at the Shakespeare Statue in Central Park. Many times I would stop for a break from cycling, buy a soft drink, and watch couples dancing. I would linger and remember that I once had the privilege of bicycling through the barrios of Buenos Aires, the home of this music. Tango has become so popular around the world that there is an ongoing tango club maintained by Turkish music and dance students in faraway Istanbul.
Now, I am once again listening to the CD Como Va Todo, written and arranged by Javier Cohen, a brilliant and creative Argentinian tango and jazz guitarist, who lives and works out of Buenos Aires. I am fixated on cut number three, “Soledad,” which was composed before WWII by the late great maestro of early 20th-century tango, Carlos Gardel, and his composing partner Alfredo Le Pera. On this recording, Cohen is accompanied by Claudio Gandolfo on the bandoneon, Nicanor Suárez on stand-up bass, and Germain Gomez on drums.
Although the song starts with the melody interpreted through Javier’s guitar, it is then passed to the bandoneon, then bass, then back to guitar. With each pass it is varied melodically and rhythmically, in what feels like an effortless and cyclical dream-like state. This kind of performance is the expression of great artistry and the result of years of playing together, as the musicians are all close friends and fellow porteños (born residents of Buenos Aires).
I am hypnotized by the endlessly satisfying variations of “Soledad,” and I can see once again the marvelous barrios of Buenos Aires, its Paris-like parks, and its life lived outdoors. When I listen to this ensemble, I hear its melodies and rhythms rise naturally from the roundabouts of the wide avenues of this marvelous city, whose musicians have always graced it with a mixture of Latin, American, and classical musical styles.
“Soledad,” and the rest of the cuts on this nearly perfect CD, seem effortless and have the sprezzatura of music from the Italian Renaissance. They are re-creations, or better still creative interpolations, of tango, jazz, and classical music. This music, if it could be drunk, would taste as good as the best Argentine wine.
When Javier was working on his first CD, Buenas—which is also a joy to hear—I spent time at his house, witnessed his skills as an asador (master of the barbecue, as in “matador”), and heard him play unaccompanied in his courtyard. He and his wife Selva took me to hear tango guitarists. And he made me a CD of scores of classical tango melodies to better habituate me to its themes and variations.
I was soon hooked, and wanted to know more about Javier’s musical background and creative process. This is his ongoing story, for he will certainly write, arrange, and produce much more music in the years ahead, as he and his musical allies take tango into the 21st century.
Javier Cohen was born January 2nd, 1966, in Buenos Aires. He is the youngest of three sons, one of whom is also a guitarist and introduced young Javier to the instrument. His late father Salomon was descended from the Sephardic Jews of Syria and his mother from immigrants from Lithuania.
Javier was a bright student and went to local public schools such as the Instituto Vernier and the Francisco de Vitoria School. He went to a high school/junior college that specialized in science and engineering, where he studied electronics, expecting to build a career in that field. But like many scientifically gifted musicians before him, he could not stop hearing the music—music took over his soul.
He took up the classical guitar at the Carlos Guastavino School. But soon after that he suspended his classical training and found, in Armando Alonso, a teacher who later became a friend.
Alonso opened Cohen’s eyes and ears, and for five years helped him navigate the perilous and rewarding world of guitar improvisation. Later work with the celebrated bandoneonist Rodolfo Mederos insured that while Javier moved in and out of jazz, he would be rooted in the musical world of tango.
Javier explained to me that the local conservatory and teachers influenced by its traditions pushed young musicians towards a mastery of the classical music of Europe, which has high prestige in Argentina because Argentinian culture is rooted in Europe. Javier felt that this repertoire had become frozen. Similarly, he concluded that the classic pre-WWII tango compositions suffered from the same problem. He felt that, as a musician, he must “open these repertoires.” At the time he had no idea how to do this, and so followed his musical interests wherever they led.
Growing up, his brothers were listening to Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles, as well as to Argentina’s own modern folk singer icon, Mercedes Sosa. On the radio and on records there was blues and rock from both the United States and England. And since his father was of Syrian descent, every weekend he would hear the languid, nostalgic melodies of Lebanese pop stars such as Fairuz on his father’s gramophone.
As his parents were natural tango dancers, he was also exposed to the form in the house. He told me that they were a perfectly matched couple.
By the 1970s, tango was no longer in the musical forefront in Argentina. Pop and folk music outshone it. Nevertheless, slowly, Javier began to rediscover the rich depth of the tango repertoire and its possibilities.
One of my greatest influences was Luis Alberto Spinetta. He was a complete artist who was always searching for the music of the words, a perfect balance of surrealism, and popular messages, but never giving up his search for beauty. He was like a guy from your neighborhood who can talk to you about Picasso or Ravel, and at the same time you can talk to him about soccer while the two of you work on a barbecue. Then of course there was Charly García, with his unforgettable group Sui Generis, which was for me, a version of Simon and Garfunkel in Spanish, telling the stories that represented the youth of our time, like tango composers and lyricists used to do when tango was a living, evolving music decades ago … So by the time I was 16 I started to see music as my world, not just as a listener, but as a young Argentinian artist who needed to build a musical world for himself, trying to learn and understand as much as I could from musicians and artists from all over the world and from different ages of history.
When I asked who was one of his greatest early influences, he said:
I think there was a first real focus on Astor Piazzolla, who of course I knew as a listener, but when I saw him perform live, something changed forever … I also remember clearly listening to my cassettes of Spinetta, Sui Generis, Serú Girán over and over, often playing my guitar, trying to get the right chords, so that I would have the chance to play those songs by myself or with my friends. Even my first contact with Ravel was during that time, on a Pedro Aznar album (with Serú Girán as bass player) that recorded a beautiful version of Pavane pour une infante défunte. That was a big moment. When I finally made it to New York City and studied with jazz master Jim Hall, we talked a lot about Ravel and Debussy, and the importance of understanding this musical world.
From his teens, Javier was an omnivorous listener and fan of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Chet Baker. At the same time, he was also finding a deep connection with the works of Bach, Chopin, and Mozart. Yet, he thought of all of them in the same light as local masters such as Aníbal Troilo, Roberto Grela, Horacio Salgán, Piazzolla, and Spinetta. There was no hierarchy there, just equality of excellence.
He once told me:
I even get a profound connection from a recording called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a traditional folk group. I do not understand the lyrics but it goes straight to my heart. And then there were films. We watched Clint Eastwood. We saw Sergio Leone films but we were really listening to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. I remember listening to those soundtracks, but it sure did not resonate with the Anglo- and Afro-American music that I was playing during the ’60s and ’70s.
During our many conversations Javier finally told me that in tango, he felt that there is a “beautiful weirdness,” that consists in the fact that in many compositions, music adapts its form to the lyrics, and becomes asymmetrical, rhythmically, harmonically, or melodically; that gives it a unique feel. That is one of the reasons improvising on a tango theme is so difficult. As a fellow guitarist, he assured me that “once you get the form, and if you know the lyrics, and understand the meaning, wonderful things can happen while you improvise.” This is what he and his ensemble are trying to do today, by taking pieces by Gardel, Troilo, or Cobian, creating credible arrangements, yet improvising on the themes in such a way that the audience feels that they are hearing them for the very first time.
Today, Javier continues to play in a trio with Claudio Gandolfo and Hernán Fernández. They are recording their new album called Línea de Tres, which is Argentine soccer jargon, roughly translated as “reasonable risks.” This is an ensemble of like-minded musicians from Buenos Aires, mixing, matching, and experimenting, all towards the goal of creating a 21st-century tango idiom. I am not an expert in this genre, but if anyone has a chance of pulling this off, I suspect that it is Javier and his gifted friends.
GEOFFREY CLARFIELD is the Consultant for Research and Development for the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in Manhattan.