TROY — Tango is forever. Just ask violinist Jeremy Cohen.
“Tango is full of character. It speaks to me as a style,” Cohen said from San Francisco.
On Friday, Cohen will lead his Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in an evening of tango and jazz. Tango dancers Sandor and Parissa will interpret several of the tunes.
Cohen, who founded the quartet in 2001, didn’t start out to be a tango aficionado. He studied with Itzhak Perlman and later became interested in jazz violin. For several years, he made his living as a soloist with such orchestras as the Reno Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, recorded soundtracks for films and television including “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Star Wars,” and acted as concertmaster on recordings with artists like Linda Ronstadt and Cleo Laine.
Then, in the late 1990s, Cohen was hired as the lead violin for the Broadway show “Forever Tango,” which was nominated in 1997 for a Tony Award for Best Choreography. Among the several Argentinian dancers was Sandor, who was the show’s principal dancer. Cohen, who stayed with the show for two years, became enamoured of the music and the dancers.
“They have a feel for the style and the people. They dance with dignity and pride, which is attached to the music, their history and the traditions,” he said. “They take it very seriously. They’re fully invested with their entire soul.”
Cohen had to learn several techniques that are peculiar to tango’s style, which is based heavily on rhythm, he said. He learned how to emulate a cricket with his bow, to make a glissando (a slide) up the strings that sounds like a whip, and to tap his violin in a rhythmic way.
When the show closed, Cohen returned to the West Coast and discovered he missed playing tango. In 2001, he founded Quartet San Francisco with violinist Kayo Miki, his brother Joel on cello and violist Emily Onderdonk, who recently was replaced by Keith Lawrence. In the beginning, their programs included a few classics and arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos or jazz tunes by Chick Corea, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck that Cohen provided because few of these types of pieces are available in music stores, he said. Although the musicians were all classically trained, none had a clue as to how to play tango.
“I had to train them in the sensibility and stylistically,” Cohen said. “There are tricks of the trade to play tango.”
The quartet became so adept that the next year Cohen decided to focus more on the tango. He gave Sandor a call and asked if he’d be interested in dancing while the quartet played. By then, Sandor had been working for two years with Parissa in dance shows and for films. (They married in 2005.) In the past few years, the duo has also appeared in numerous dance videos, international tango shows, and choreographs for U.S. Olympic Ice Dancers.
“They’re in costumes and are pretty dramatic,” Cohen said.
Audience response was so great that the arrangement has become ongoing.
What brought the quartet national attention were two things: it won the Grand Prize at the 2004 New York City International Tango Competition, and it was nominated for a Grammy in 2006 for its CD, “Latigo.” As part of the prize for winning the competition was a two-week tour of Argentina.
“It was terrifying. It was like bringing coals to Newcastle,” Cohen said. “But the crowds were very welcoming and gave us ovations. They understood that we’d got it; that we’d captured the sense of the music and applied it to a string quartet.”
Last year, the group was nominated for a Grammy Award for best crossover album for “Whirled Chamber Music” (Violin Jazz Recordings).
Ironically, Turtle Island Quartet won for “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.” Cohen used to play with Turtle Island and played a concert in 1991 with them at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. That’s how Quartet San Francisco got the Friday concert date.
“I remembered the hall was awesome,” Cohen said.
His group was scheduled to perform in Boston. So he called Laura Kratt, the hall’s director, to see if she could give him a concert date.
With two Grammy nominations, Cohen said he felt that the Quartet was on to something. That’s why it no longer plays classical pieces. It does about 35 concerts annually and has a strong educational outreach. The program on Friday is typical: Piazzolla, Bernstein, Corea, Brubeck, Ellington and Raymond Scott. Scott’s music is familiar to anyone who’s watched Loony Tunes cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Cohen said. Scott never wrote for the cartoons but he was always quoted because his tangos, swing and mambo pieces had such style.
This is also Scott’s 100th anniversary.
“We go where other string quartets don’t go,” Cohen said.
Quartet San Francisco
WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 29
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
HOW MUCH: $29, $25, $15
MORE INFO: 273-0038 or visit www.troymusichall.org