Accordionist Richard Galliano says the father of modern tango was “a second father” to him.

French-born accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano has released albums paying tribute to Edith Piaf – one of the greatest chanteuses his country ever produced – and to film composer Nino Rota, a nod to his own Italian heritage. But his most personal hommage to date is to his friend and mentor, the late Astor Piazzolla. Now, Galliano is bringing his Piazzolla Forever septet to Melbourne as part of a world tour honouring the Argentine bandoneonist and composer 20 years after his death. 

Galliano grew up listening in awe to sensual tangos composed and played by Piazzolla, who became something of a hero to the budding accordionist. He recalls “spending a whole night listening to his discs, and in the early hours of the morning composing my own tango. 

“The first time I saw him play was with his quintet at the Théâtre Champs-Élysées and it was a real shock. The music was so powerful, so rich and full of swing that I was nailed to my seat!” 

Perhaps inevitably in the squeezebox world, the two musicians eventually crossed paths. In the early 1980s, Piazzolla came backstage after Galliano played L’Olympia to congratulate the younger virtuoso. The two became fast friends, as did their respective wives, Laura and Giselle. “We were practically family,” the accordionist reminisces. “Each time they came to Paris we would have them over for meals; we spent Christmas together.”

Galliano describes the Argentine tango master as “very, very religious…but with a bit of a provocative side. 

“He was a second father to me. He gave me very, very important advice that I have followed in my own career. He told me to be true to myself. One day he said, ‘Richard, just as I invented New Tango, it’s up to you to invent the New Musette’.” 

In this way, each man has embraced his own “cultural identity” by “renovating and updating the music of our respective countries.” For Piazzolla, there was a French connection. It was during his studies in Paris with the formidable Nadia Boulanger that he discovered his voice as ‘the father of modern tango’, encouraged to elevate the street music of Argentina to a more sophisticated artform by introducing classical elements like fugue. (The classically trained Galliano likens Piazzolla’s famous tune Libertango to a “Bach aria” – and he would know, having recorded a disc of his own Bach arrangements.) 

Thanks to Piazzolla’s advice, Galliano, too, became a pioneer in his own right. The 61-year-old has come full circle: from accompanying French singers Juliette Greco and Charles Aznavour as a young man; to breaking out as one of the first jazz soloists on his instrument; finally creating his own distinctive mélange of traditional musette and genre-defying collaborations. 

Those collaborations include the album and tour with his hand-picked Piazzolla Forever ensemble of piano, bass and a string quartet: “Open-minded musicians, the best classical musicians in France” performing Galliano’s jazz-tinged arrangements and improvisations. Since “it wouldn’t be a real tribute to Piazzolla without bandoneon,” the bandleader switches between accordion and Piazzolla’s weapon of choice. “The two instruments are cousins,” he adds. 

“When Astor Piazzolla died, I felt responsible – not responsible, but felt a strong desire ­– to share his music with the world,” Galliano explains. “The septet is a love story between us [the musicians] and Piazzolla.”

Richard Galliano’s Piazzolla Forever Septet plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 13. View event details here.