It is a rare pleasure when two these two elements meet in a single configuration: technical mastery and danceability.
However you define danceability, it comes down to that feeling of restlessness in your legs, your heart rate skyrocketing, your head turning around in search of a willing partner to join you on the dance floor.
Technical mastery is easier to pinpoint. When the former is present, I'll settle for the musicians playing generally in tune and mostly on the same beat. However, these are prerequisites. The bar of mastery is higher.
It's how effortless the phrases sound, no matter how hard it might be to play all the notes involved, in tune and on the beat.
It's these sharp accents produced when the musicians arrive on the beat together at the same time. Not kinda, sorta - exactly.
It's the dynamic contrast between passages, thoughtful crescendos and diminuendos, capturing the potential of each phrase in style.
And, it's the arrangements themselves, taking a simple motive and making it a 2-3 minute story in which the instruments play together, telling the story, making jokes, guiding you on the dance floor. These can be written before the musicians even meet for the first rehearsal, or can be improvised on the spot; in any case, they prescribe what you hear on the recording or live in the festival hall.
I will reveal up front that all of these aspect, and many more, met in the last album of Solo Tango Orquesta - Juntos. Mixed together, they've created a rare gem of contemporary tango music that is deeply rooted in the dancing tradition while not being beholden to any specific Golden Age influence.
Released in November 2020, they escaped my attention until now because the band is not available on Bandcamp. Indeed, purchasing the music turned out to be tricky. I ended up installing iTunes in a Windows Sandbox and purchasing the album there, then transferring it to my host PC (because, if you are on Windows, you don't want iTunes installed as a first-class citizen and fucking with your music library, unprompted). If you live in a country where Amazon sells MP3s, that might a better option.
The embeds below are taken from Spotify. I encourage you to buy the music directly if you like it, however. I love Spotify just like you but it's no way for musicians to make real money.
There are 8 tangos, 2 milongas, and 1 vals included, and everything including the two Pugliese covers is made straight for the dance floor. All are instrumentals.
I've already featured three tangos from the album in my latest progressive mix, and now is a good time to talk about them in some detail.
Buscándote starts with a uniquely captivating phrase, only to reveal its motive moments thereafter. A careful listener will hear the opening phrase again at the end of the song. The arrangement is, and that's true for all the covers, respectful and largely canonical, and only takes the liberty of going on a side quest when appropriate and helpful.
While best known for the Fresedo's interpretation with Ricardo Ruiz, the only piece by Fresedo that I've ever played, I did not miss the vocals here.
Canaro's Poema is such a kitsch I used to shudder when hearing it played pre-COVID, heading to the bar instead of dancing (assuming it was the tanda's opener, I am not that rude). The band gave it a thorough remake, keeping the motive but elaborating on it with critically and without undue devotion.
Muy suave follows the script Domingo Federico gave it in 1954 and on the first as well as second and third listen, it sounds just like what it would've sounded when Federico originally recorded, only with the recording equipment that is several orders of magnitude more capable today than it was in his day.
Merceditas used to be played frequently on festivals and marathons in Europe a few years ago. You'll have known it from its canonical version recorded by Orquesta Simbolo Osmar Maderna c. Carlos Aldao & Adolfo Rivas in 1958. The Solo Tangueros follow the script closely, with a short intro giving way to the catchy motive without much delay.
Interestingly, I did not miss the vocals here either. It's a testament to the instrumental arrangement the Soloists have made, incorporating the vocal line and alternating in who among them delivers it.
Porteñísimo is a high-fidelity remake of Caló's classic. I've compared this with the version by Orquesta Típica Sans Souci (review here) and then to the original, and there are very few differences. Of course, the 2020 recordings sound like you were there in the studio with the musicians, and so at least technically there isn't any reason to glorify the original. The remakes are simply better.
I have several interpretations on Mi dolor in my library, and it can be a very different song depending on who takes up the challenge. Just compare D'Arienzo's take to that of Edelmiro D'Amario c. Ángel Vargas. But those versions are vocal; the Soloists have proved it is self-sustainable as a pure instrumental, reminiscent in its sharpness, tempo, and drive of late D'Arienzo.
La milonga de Buenos Aires is popular among the cover bands, and I have several pre-existing favorites among whom the Solo Tango Orquesta's version is a top contender. The arrangement is conservative, not adding or removing much. What it might lack in innovativeness is well compensated by its fantastic drive. As a dancer, that's what I seek in milongas the most; as I reviewer, I might enjoy more punk and weirdness that I would soon regret if I were to dance to it 🤣
They take more liberty with La trampera, with the palms or fingers of the double bass player drumming hard at the beginning of the song reminding me of the version by Esteban Morgado Cuarteto. The drumming comes back at the end to help create an ending that will drive the dancers crazy.
You won't find another version of Mujeres, because it's a Solo Tango original, presumably just like their earlier Vals De Invierno from the album Nuestro. The latter has appeared in my sets 7 times and Mujeres is likely to follow its path. It's phenomenal, combining gentle lyricism with upbeat passages. Its slow end would make it a great candidate for the closer in a tanda, leaving me searching for only one more vals to form it without mixing bands.
That leaves us with two last songs, Pugliese covers - La tupungatina and La mariposa.
Often, I have doubts whether it makes sense to cover Pugliese while trying to best the old man at his own game. I mean, among the old masters, Pugliese still created a category of his own. There's so much nuance and detail to his style that imitators, however good, often end up short - by a lot.
You could argue that it's also hard to beat D'Arienzo at being D'Arienzo and Di Sarli being Di Sarli, and there's some truth to that. The difference I see is that the bands often cover Di Sarli while making his music their own, but when they approach Pugliese, they can't help it but just imitate, at best over-acting and over-playing.
Add to that the (arguable) fact that Pugliese's work from 1950's onwards is often available in very acceptable, if not quite contemporary, technical quality.
How did the Soloists fare?
La tupungatina is cleaner, more regular take than original, although it in my view lacks the roughness and the sheer energy that Pugliese captured. Take that keeping in mind that it is still a masterful, technically precise and stylistically well grounded cover. Hold a loaded gun to my head, though, and I'll choose the original here.
The closer is La mariposa and what a closer it is! The Soloists cannot match the orchestral volume of Pugliese's 1966 recording, and take a more constrained, chamber-music route instead, and in contrast to La tupungatina, there are a lot more rubatos and playing loose with the tempo in general. Still, the arrangement is familiar most the way, until they get to the ending.
There, you suddenly hear something very different.
You have to listen to this just for the ending alone.
I heard the Solo Tango Orquesta live in Belgrade a few years ago, maybe it was 2019 but it already feels like ancient history. Thanks for nothing, COVID-19. 🤬
At that time, I couldn't find albums to buy, and assumed they only played live. Maybe it was so, maybe I was just lazy and didn't look hard enough. Either way, I am rectifying my mistake with this review, and another review is likely to drop sometime soon, for the album they recorded with Walther "Chino" Laborde, the singer who accompanied them that time in Belgrade.
You will have to look long and hard to find another living band that matches their level of technical perfection and is also so eager to please the dancers. One could perhaps explain their mastery by noting they are Russian, and Russian musicians are hard to beat, sober or drunk, in any competition. How suitable their recordings are for dancers, however, could only be a matter of conscious intent. Whether I am right or not, I thank them for it, and when you've heard them play, you will, too.