In what one may call a "return to their roots," the Oregon-based Conjunto Berretin, one of several permutations of Alex Krebs's tango bands, released a new, highly populist album: Tangos del Berretin.
When I say "highly populist," I mean it as a compliment!
As chance would have it, it came out at the end of March - just one day before I left Prague for New York. What a delightful present, if I can make this about me for just a minute!
After examining their discography, I discovered that Conjunto Berretin's first recording was in 2004 ("Tango for Lovers and Fools", which is unfortunately not available on Bandcamp), so it has been nearly 20 years. That's a long time for a tango band given that unlike in Canaro's times, one does not simply become a millionaire playing tango for dancers nowadays.
As a special treat, singer Megan Yvonne joins the group for not one, not two, but seven out of the eleven tracks. She redefines the otherwise "classicist" arrangements, of hits such as Fueron tres años and Nada, with her mellow alto voice, yet remains a "Cantor de orquesta" and never claims any extra attention.
This is far from common as the singers became stars in the 1950s and never really ceded the ground since. Compare with Romantica Milonguera, whose singers are front and center.
The group is compact, counting just five instrumentalists on most tracks, yet punches far above its weight and paper limitations. I never felt a longing for more sound on any of the arrangements, such as the expansive Nada.
The album opens with Pedacito de cielo. It flows a tad slower than Miguel Caló's 1942 recording, moving at a relaxed walking pace. That leaves a little more room for the motive to breathe and caress you tenderly. A few times, you'll hear "exotic" harmonic progressions, and they're used as a spice and not the main course, so the original theme is preserved.
I wish there were one or more valses to form a coherent tanda. What we do from the album "Tangos in English" also features Megan Yvonne, and I love it so much that I asked my wife to dance it with me at our wedding last year. As for the third one, I have the option to wait for a future release or look into Conjunto's early material such as "CB Vals" from 2004, which, alas, has a different singer. Oh, the mental anguish of a DJ, never to be extinguished! 🤣
Fueron tres años was immortalized by Varela's recordings with Ledesma (1956) and Falcón (1973), although the latter is arguably too dramatical for a regular milonga. The conjunto turns the drama-o-meter back a few notches, which helps danceability without hurting the source material. I mean, "it's been three years," sure, but one must eventually get over it, right?
Zorzal is an early peak of the album, though far from being the only one! A long-time reader will know that I am a milonga-head and a (milonga nerd), and not just vicariously - I love it when I arrive at a milonga and a milonga tanda starts; instead of my usual vacillating, I pick the nearest lone lady whose legs are tapping the floor and weave into the ronda at the earliest opportunity.
So then, Zorzal, yes - I'm not a big fan of Di Sarli's rendition, or indeed Di Sarli's milongas in general as they are lacking in the "punch" department (or do I just like them faster?) Don't take me wrong, they are delicious; they just leave me hungrier after the dance instead of sated. Like a salad, I suppose. In this case, I really need the burger if you follow my drift.
Conjunto delivers Zorzal just like I'd always want it to be! It's about 5% faster but at least 50% sharper and still tells the same story. I can barely sit in my chair writing this as I listen to it.
That the conjunto won't go crazy with their arrangements is obvious when Nada comes up. It is similar in spirit to Di Sarli's version and not at all over-excited compared to Romantica Milonguera's. It feels just about right unless, obviously, you do feel the need to amp up the excitement here.
If that's your vibe, this album could feel like it's holding back a bit. Again, there's Romantica Milonguera for those occasions.
Continuing in the same spirit, Fumando espero, mostly known for its 1950s versions such as Varela's and Di Sarli's, carries itself with dignity, refusing to succumb to pathos. And that's not because it's too intellectual or dry; the band plays for dancers 100% of the time. It's as if the arranger realized that the extremes of expression had already been reached and defined, and it was time to explore new dimensions and find nuances to describe a normal, "sane" spectrum of emotions.
Megan Yvonne peaks again with a mesmerizing interpretation of Tú, el cielo y tú. One cannot mention this tune without referencing Di Sarli's canonical recording, and we've had many mentions of Di Sarli in this review - so many I feel compelled to emphasize that the conjunto is by no means a Di Sarli cover band. At most, it may reveal the preferences of the bandleader/arranger.
Here, even a reluctant traditionalist must be sold by the picture that the conjunto paints and Megan Yvonne is especially convincing as the song comes to its close. I say that as a deep admirer of Alberto Podestá, who made this song a staple at milongas: without imitation, which would be tricky to perform with a different chromosome setup, without flattery, without rejecting the heritage and going the opposite direction; simply by being in service of the music and doing one's best to interpret it with fidelity.
Here is something I did not expect: Mozo guapo, a milonga I adore so much I've had it as my ringtone for years now, one that is just about perfect in its original form by Tanturi/Castillo, redone without a singer and - exciting me with the same vigor!
It's sharp, fast but not crazy fast, and as driven as a milonga must be!
If I were to speculate, I'd say that the piano explains why I don't miss the singer here. The pianist emerges from the background at times and serves up passages that improvise and play with the theme almost in a jazzman-like fashion. You'll notice this on a repeat listening session - the piano does not overpower the rest of the band and does the job nonchalantly like it's no big deal.
Whereas Mozo guapo delivered a traditional milonga tune in a high-fidelity arrangement, Te vas milonga leads us in a new direction. I suppose it is an original tune like The Call of Berretin.
The tempo is at a very comfortable 88 BPMs (like Silueta porteña by Canaro) and it has the milonga beats; occasionally, though, you'll hear a few tricks that could throw a naive dancer off his tracks. I'd put this one in the "watch out" category; it's more complicated than it feels at first.
The other original song is The Call of Berretin. It's a throwback to the album Looking Ahead on the Shoulders of the Past, which - and this is extremely rare in the post-Golden era - contained all-new tango songs. While pleasant at first sight, it requires several listening sessions to fully appreciate. Such is the handicap of new tango tunes as the dancer/listener has no prior point of reference; on the flip side, since there's nothing to compare it to (and complain about), each new composition has the potential to set the band apart in a way that a cover version cannot.
At last, we come to two songs that cross genres and open the dancer's consciousness to very different traditions: Uskadara and Djelem djelem. As I am not familiar with the source material for either one, I'll reserve further comments until I've spoken with the band leader. Whatever the case might be, I think these two will make for compelling additions to a "nuevo DJ's" repertoire! For my typical audience, they may be a step too far 😉
"Tangos del Berretin" is a masterful achievement and is evenly compelling from the first track to the last.
It should please the traditionalist as it delivers well-known hits with great respect to the tradition, and yet in a new, fresh light.
Those who want "something new" and maybe even a journey into other genres, they'll find songs to enjoy here, too.
Most importantly, all eleven tracks are meant to be reinterpreted with your feet and, indeed, your whole body. Unlike many European bands, these guys didn't feel the need to prove that they can play for a discerning listening audience, too, even though they are classically trained. I love them for it!
PS Check out my earlier review of "The New York Tango Jam Session" for more music by Alex Krebs/Berretin!