THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL TANGO by Ted Gioia



                    Key West Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski


The similarities between jazz and tango are striking. Both were creations of the New World that looked back to European and African sources of inspiration. Both quickly adapted their folkloric inheritance to commercial demands and artistic aspirations. Both were intimately linked to the dance, but also achieved great successes as music for listeners. Above all, both have proven remarkably flexible, taking on new dimensions with each generation of performers.

We should not be surprised that these two musical cultures, with so much in common, should maintain such close ties. African-American music has long shown its affinity for the tango, from the days of Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton to the present. Tango, for its part, has frequently looked to jazz for inspiration, but also borrows generously from many other musical idioms. These trends continue today. The future of tango is secure, with a host of exciting artists bringing new elements into the music, while retaining the defining elements of its Argentinean heritage.

Below I survey twelve tango performances that capture the history and diversity of this still vibrant and evolving tradition, demonstrate its impact outside of Argentina, and hint at its possible future directions.


Carlos Gardel: Volver

Track

Volver

Artist

Carlos Gardel (vocals)

CD

Los Exitos De Sus Peliculas (Capitol / EMI Latin 42644)

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Musicians:

Carlos Gardel (vocals),

and orchestra conducted by Terig Tucci

.

Composed by Carlos Gardel & Alfredo Le Pera

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, March 19, 1935

Albumcovercarlosgardellosexitos

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Three quarters of a century after his death in a plane crash, Carlos Gardel still inspires passion and fanatical devotion among his legions of fans. At the dawn of the recording age, Gardel defined tango as commercial music and was a megastar throughout Latin America. Had he lived longer, he would no doubt have become a household name in the United States, and probably a major Hollywood draw. But this hit-maker was much more than a pop music act -- he was also an artist of the highest rank, a consummate vocalist who counted the great Caruso among his admirers.

"Volver" comes from a historic recording session that produced a half-dozen tango classics, and shows off Gardel's forceful baritone and emotional fervor. What an amazing voice! Yet Gardel delivers more than just belt-it-to-the-back-rows power. He is also the consummate storyteller, drawing the listener into the high drama of his music. Even today, folks in Buenos Aires will say Veinte años no es nada ("Twenty years is nothing"), drawing on a well-known phrase in this song. Ah, when it comes to the enduring fame of Gardel, "The King of Tango," the fourscore years since his death are nothing. His legacy remains a defining element of tango even in the new millennium.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Ada Falcón: Yira Yira

Track

Yira Yira

Artist

Ada Falcón (vocals)

CD

Tango Ladies (Harlequin 34)

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Musicians:

Ada Falcón (vocals),

with Francisco Canaro and his orchestra

.

Composed by Enrique Santos Discépolo

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, October 1930

Albumcovertangoladies

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Ada Falcón led one of those dramatic, surprising lives so typical of the great tango artists. Born in 1905. Falcón began performing on stage at age 11, and made her motion picture debut two years later. But her greatest fame would come in her 20s, when she recorded a series of memorable tango songs. This version of "Yira Yira" was recorded a month before Carlos Gardel entered the studio to make his own famous version. Yet Falcón's spirited rendition stands out as a classic statement of disappointment and despair. "Everything is a lie," the singer declares here. Falcón's life would eventually become pervaded with this same sense of disillusionment. After 1942, la joyita Argentina (or "little Argentine jewel'), as she was known, refused to allow her photo to be taken, and she eventually entered a convent where she led a withdrawn, ascetic life. She lived another six decades after her departure from the entertainment world, but her renunciation of a celebrated past has done little to dim the legend of the emotionally charged performer featured on this track.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Aníbal Troilo: Quejas de Bandoneón

Track

Quejas de Bandoneón

Artist

Aníbal Troilo (bandoneon)

CD

Quejas de Bandoneón (El Bandoneón EBCD 67)

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Musicians:

Aníbal Troilo (bandoneon).

y su Orquesta Típica. Composed by Juan De Dios Filiberto

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, September 27, 1944

Albumcover

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Aníbal Troilo

Troilo was the preeminent bandoneón player of mid-century Argentina. Although he performed with many of the greatest tango singers of the era, his instrumental works rank among his most beloved recordings. Here he demonstrates his incisive bandoneón sound, sharply staccato and slightly anticipating the beat. When Troilo died, his widow gave his bandoneón to Piazzolla, who expressed reluctance to try to make music on the instrument that the master had once played so caressingly. Yet Piazzolla (and others) could not escape so easily the influence of this consummate artist, who was able to balance the sentimentality of the tango with a certain macho energy and assertiveness. This track reflects the intensity of Troilo's musical vision as well as his fastidious care with arrangements and dynamics.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Roberto Goyeneche: Buenos Aires Conoce

Track

Buenos Aires Conoce

Artist

CD

Todo Tango (BMG / Milan Music 35667)

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Musicians:

Roberto Goyeneche (vocals), Nestor Marconi (bandoneón),

Osvaldo Tarantino (piano), Carlos Sanguino (violin), Angel Ridolfi (bass), Adrian Pucci (viola), Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Carlos Nozzi (cello)

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, May 1989

Albumcovertodotango

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Roberto Goyeneche's distinctive singing captures perfectly the louche and bohemian ambiance of 1950s-era tango, evoking a lifestyle even more than a musical genre. Then again, it's a bit of a stretch to call this singing . . . Goyeneche's performances linger at the halfway point between vocals and declamation, sounding more like a spirited exhortation to true believers. He cuts off his phrases, rolls his consonants, and never really settles into the melody -- almost the antithesis of the great Carlos Gardel. Goyeneche's nickname was El Polaco (the Pole), due to his blonde hair, but his mood is pure Argentinean, especially on this wistful track with its celebration of the spirit of Buenos Aires.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Astor Piazzolla: Milonga Del Angel

Track

Milonga Del Angel

Artist

Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon)

CD

Tango: Zero Hour (Nonesuch 79469)

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Musicians:

Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon), Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Pablo Ziegler (piano), Horacio Malvicino (guitar), Hector Console (bass).

Composed by Astor Piazzolla

.

Recorded: New York, May 1986

Albumcoverapiazzollatzh

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Piazzolla is one of those distinctly modern artists of the late 20th century, who could combine the depths of romanticism with an acerbic sense of irony. His playing possesses both immediacy and distance, passion and a biting indifference, and the tension between these extremes is responsible for much of the power of the music. Perhaps only Sinatra had a surer touch at combining the paradoxical, love and its opposite, into a single song.

But on "Milonga Del Angel," the masks are down, the pretenses put aside, and Piazzolla offers us one of his most direct, heartfelt performances. "This has absolutely been the greatest record I've made in my entire life," Piazzolla commented about the CD, Tango: Zero Hour, where we find this track. Certainly he had reason to be happy with this music. Piazzolla never fronted a finer working band, and it was well seasoned by the time of this project. In particular, pianist Ziegler brings a jazzier sensibility to the quintet, and he clearly inspires the bandleader. Piazzolla also had hopes that this would be the recording that would finally earn him a large audience in the United States, where he had spent much of his youth, but had never received the acclaim he found in other parts of the world.

The recordings from this period brought Piazzolla new admirers, and in 1987 he performed to a sizable crowd in New York's Central Park. Yet Piazzolla's greatest fame would come posthumously. Four years after making this recording, he suffered a debilitating stroke, and in 1992 he died at the age of 71. His passing coincided with a the increasing commercialization of so-called World Music, a trend that has kept his recordings in print and widely heard long after his death. This late-vintage track is one of his finest performances, and a good introduction to a seminal artist.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton: Milonga is Coming

Track

Milonga is Coming

Group

Astor Piazzolla and Gary Burton

CD

The New Tango (Atlantic 81823)

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Musicians:

Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon), Gary Burton (vibes).

Composed by Astor Piazzolla

.

Recorded: Montreux, Switzerland, July, 1986

Albumcoverburtonpiazollanewtango

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Gary Burton had worked in Stan Getz's band in the 1960s, and saw firsthand how Getz's advocacy of bossa nova and willingness to collaborate with Brazilian musicians had revitalized his career and created a sensation in the music world. Two decades after leaving Getz, Burton embarks on a similar venture with the greatest Argentinean musician of the modern era, the brilliant tango composer and performer Astor Piazzolla. This promising meeting of jazz music and nuevo tango did not climb to the top of the charts, and posed no commercial match for that tall & tan & young & lovely girl who strolled past the Veloso bar-cafe in Rio. But this is a important recording, nonetheless, and one wishes that it had led to follow-up projects of similar scope. Burton here adapts to Piazzolla's compositions, and does so admirably, although with perhaps a little too much respect -- after all, Getz himself was fond of saying that irreverence was an essential attribute of a great jazz player. Maybe a dose of it would have been in place in this setting. I would have liked to hear one or two numbers in which the roles were reversed, with the great bandoneónist and his colleagues immersed in some heady modern jazz tunes; or perhaps (heaven forbid) a jazzier assault on one of Piazzolla's own cherished numbers.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Sandra Luna: Che Bandoneón

Track

Ché Bandoneón

Artist

Sandra Luna (vocals)

CD

Tango Varón (Times Square Records 9038)

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Musicians:

Sandra Luna (vocals),

Julio Oscar Pane (bandoneón)

.

Composed by Aníbal Troilox and Homero Manzi

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, March 23 - April 1, 2003

Albumcoversandralunatangovaron

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

While prominent bands such Narcotango are updating the tango sound, Sandra Luna stays true to its traditions. On "Che Bandoneón" she resurrects a song by 1940s tango master Aníbal Troilo, and performs it in a stark, understated arrangement that contrasts markedly with her impassioned vocal work.

This remarkable artist began singing tango at age 11, but did not reach the international market until this release recorded in her mid-30s. Luna was raised in Mataderos, the slaughterhouse and stockyard barrio on the west side of Buenos Aires, and her music is permeated with what Unamuno called "the tragic sense of life." There is no softening irony here, just emotional fervor and a hard-won wisdom.

Listeners looking for easy-listening tango background music are advised to steer clear of this release, which is full of high drama and rhapsodic intensity. But if you want a soul-shaking immersion in tango canción of the modern day, check out this take-no-prisoners artist.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Tango Argentina (Original Cast Recording) La Cumparsita

Track

La Cumparsita

Group

Tango Argentina: Original Cast Recording

CD

Tango Argentina

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Musicians:

Original cast recording with a band including José Libertella (bandoneón), Luis Stazo (bandoneón), Lisandro Androver (bandoneón), Mario Abramovich (violin), Eduardo Walczak (violin), Rodolfo Fernández (violin), Juan Schiaffino (violin), Osvaldo Berlingieri (piano), Osvaldo Aulicino (bass), Oscar Rubén Gonzalez (bandoneón, flute), Dino Carlos Quarleri (cello)

.

Music directed by José Libertella, Luis Stazo and Osvaldo Berlingieri. Composed by Gerardo Matos Rodríguez

.
Albumcovertangoargentinabroadway

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

Broadway is not where one usually hunts out authentic World Music. But the hit 1980s show Tango Argentina stayed true to the traditions of Buenos Aires' great gift to the world, and showed (once again) the fluidity with which the tango adapts to different settings and audiences. Here the directors resurrected perhaps the most famous tango of the early days, Gerardo Matos Rodriguez's "La Cumparsita." The composer sold the rights to this song for a mere twenty pesos (although he later mounted a successful legal battle to secure royalties). In truth, everyone fought over this song, with Uruguayans and Argentines claiming it as their own, and a host of leading tango artists trying to put their stamp on it. You are encouraged to check out versions by Firpo, Gardel, Lamarque and others. The song captures the high drama of tango from the glory days—a power that is not diminished when transferred to a Broadway stage.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Hugo Diaz: Milonga Triste

Track

Milonga Triste

Artist

Hugo Diaz (harmonica)

CD

The Tango Lesson (Sony Classical 63226)

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Musicians:

Hugo Diaz (harmonica),

Omar Murtagh (bass), Robert Grela (guitar), José Leonardo Colangelo (piano)

.

Composed by Sebastián Piana and Homero Manzi

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, 1972

Albumcoverthetangolesson

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

You may have heard this haunting theme on the soundtrack to the film The Tango Lesson. Diaz eerily evokes the sound of the bandoneón on his harmonica. Yet one can also hear hints of the U.S. harmonica tradition here, and the spirit of what is called the "deep blues" permeates this performance. Blind from the age of five, Diaz moved as a teenager to Buenos Aires, where his music encompassed everything from traditional folk songs to jazz. He met Larry Adler and Toots Thielemans in Europe during the 1950s, and later had the opportunity to play with Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson in the United States. But Diaz did not make a tango recording until 1972, when he shifted from his typical folkloric material to present this remarkable track. His emotional affinity with the tango stands out on "Milonga Triste," and his work in this vein found a receptive audience. Diaz made several more tango recordings -- much cherished by fans although often hard to find -- before his death in 1975.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


The Tango Project: Por Una Cabeza

Track

Por Una Cabeza

Group

The Tango Project

CD

The Tango Project (Nonesuch 79030)

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Musicians:

William Schimmel (accordion), Michael Sahl (piano), Stan Kurtis (violin),

Richard Hendrickson (violin), Russell Savakus (bass)

.

Composed by Carlos Gardel

.

Recorded: New York, November 1981

Albumcovertangoproject

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Okay, they aren't Argentinean . . . but then again, neither was Uruguayan Carlos Gardel, the tango legend who composed and popularized this song. Yet this group is one of the most widely heard tango ensembles of recent decades. This is the band and song that Al Pacino dances to in a famous scene in Scent of a Woman. And the future governor of California strutted his stuff with Jamie Lee Curtis to this same version of "Por Una Cabeza" in True Lies. In short, here is elegant parlor-room tango with just the right touch of sensuality.

But don't get too caught up in the romantic mood. If you hear the words to this song (not included in this instrumental version), you will find that it is about a horse race lost by a head (hence the title). Yes, a woman does show up too -- but I put my money on the horse. Tango fans are encouraged to find and compare the great Gardel recording.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Narcotango: Mejor Asi

Track

Mejor Asi

Group

Narcotango

CD

Narcotango (Tademus 012)

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Musicians:

Carlos Libedinsky (guitar, keyboards, programming of loops and samples),

Patricio Bonfiglio (bandoneón), Federico Terranova (violin), Fernando del Castillo (drums, percussion), Rosanna (vocals)

.

Composed by Carlos Libedinsky

.

Recorded: Buenos Aires, March 2002-June 2003

Albumcovernarcotango

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Tango continues to evolve in the new millennium, as demonstrated by Carlos Libedinsky's Narcotango, which draws on the rich traditions of the genre while mixing in loops and samples and other digital paraphernalia. Yet the effects are never an end in themselves, and Libedinsky succeeds through an artful combination of diverse elements into a fresh hybrid that both respects the music's heritage while taking it in new directions. He has built a global audience for this music -- half of his CD sales now come outside of Argentina, and Narcotango makes regular overseas tours. Here chill-out ambient sounds cross paths with music for a sensual dance in one of the most intriguing world fusion projects of recent years.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Gotan Project: Tríptico

Track

Tríptico

Group

Gotan Project

CD

La Revancha del Tango (XL Records 164)

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Musicians:

Eduardo Makaroff (acoustic guitar), Nini Flores (bandoneon), Iine Kruse (violin), Gustavo Beytelmann (piano), Christph H. Muller (keyboards, bass, programming), Philippe Cohen Solal (keyboards, bass), Fabrizio Fenoglietto (bass), Edi Tomassi (percussion)

.

Composed by Philippe Cohen Solal

.

Recorded: No info given (CD released in 2001)

Albumcovergotan

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

How odd that the most popular tango band of the new millennium is a Paris-based ensemble founded by a French DJ. Yet Philippe Cohen Solal, composer of this track and driving force behind Gotan Project, presciently understood that tango could serve as an ingredient in an electrified, groove-oriented world fusion sound. Heck, how many tango bands dare cover a Frank Zappa tune? When the producers of the hit film Shall We Dance looked for a tango for a sensual dance scene featuring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere, they didn't pick Piazzolla, but rather a sultry number from this band. La Revancha del Tango has sold more than a million copies, and has ushered in a new era of electro-tango, where the programmer is as important as the bandoneón player. Sometimes this band gets too close to background music for my tastes, but this edgy track, the longest performance from the group's debut CD, has a jazzy feel and relentless groove. Will Gotan Project have staying power? The verdict is still out. But no matter what the future holds for this band, tango music will never be the same.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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