If you caught me in a bad mood and asked what's the main difference between European and Argentinian tango bands, I might say: "The Europeans play mostly in tune" and then carry on with my less-than-stellar day.
Later, when it would hit me that I was somewhat unfair in my sweeping generalization, I might be compelled to add: "But the Argentinians are much more connected with us dancers" to compensate for what I couldn't take back.
Sweeping or not, there's a lot you could defend in both statements. Let's take a look at a band from Sweden, Tangótica, and see how much either argument applies.
In their own words, "Tangótica is the powerful child of a surprising union between Tango and Jazz." And if you've listened to jazz music more than occasionally, you'll know that the genre is, perhaps surprisingly, well-established in the Nordics.
Judging by this statement alone, I would approach the listening session with my eyebrows firmly raised. Making a union between tango and anything else suggests to me that the musicians are more interested in their creative expression than in playing "just" for dancers.
Like it or not, us dancers are simple creatures, easily scared by unfamiliar phrases, instruments that do not belong, and or indeed anything else but a steady, regular beat. Adding foreign elements like those from jazz could mean that the target audience shrinks to that which visits nuevo/neo events and generally holds the classical tango in contempt.
Thankfully, that's not where Tangótica ends up.
The bandleader, Love Nilsson, is a professional saxophone player, and I wouldn't even need to look at the bios to know that his mates are all pros as well.
That's not a prerequisite for playing music for dancing, but it is for playing consistently in tune, and in tune, they play! 👄
It goes much further than that. Did I say saxophone? The arranges gave it a leading role in lieu of a singer who's missing. This is not a canonical tango instrument as it is in jazz, and somehow it's totally OK! I expected that it will sound foreign and out of place, and it does not.
Surprise number two: despite their claim to fuse make a union of tango and jazz, this is very much tango in all the ways where it matters. And when they play for dancing, they mean it.
The albums have something to offer for two different audiences. There are profane pieces that are meant for milongas. And then there's concert tango, such as arrangements of Piazzolla, Pugliese, or late Troilo. You might enjoy their vibes deeply without any intent to recreate them with your feet.
As I have little to say about concert tango, I'll focus on the songs that moved me to dance while encouraging you to listen to the rest and make up your own mind. Your selection might be very different.
The first four tracks we'll cover come from the debut album, Sexteto Tangótica.
Qué falta que me hacés, which Caló recorded with Alberto Podestá in 1963 (making it somewhat tricky to fit in a coherent tanda), comes alive without a singer. Love's saxophone does the heavy lifting in retelling the story. I loved the deep registers; I'm no expert in wind instruments, and if I were to guess, he plays several kinds as needed.
Laurenz's Milonga de mis amores sprints at breakneck speed of about 120 beats per minute and does so with so much ease it's hard to believe it wasn't altered in post-production. Instead of saxophone, we hear the flute leading the flock of birds here - picture hummingbirds if you can't listen right away. For those of us who love very fast milongas, this is a treat!
Fresedo's El espiante is the most easy-going, and one might say "frivolous" piece of the two albums, and I mean it as a compliment. It starts with a train-like whistle, though not as long as Fresedo's, and then proceeds at a faster pace that I found very appropriate. We hear the flute again delivering the melody as well as the occasional whistle. I found this whole affair irresistible, and adorable! 😍
While not strictly conventional in any way, I could not resist but to include Lacrymosa in my selection even though I'd have fewer opportunities to offer it to my dancers.
It is a vals cover of the last movement of Mozart's Requiem that Mozart wrote himself (the rest was completed by his disciple Franz Xaver Süssmayr). I admire the audacity this arrangement must have taken! One does not simply cover Mozart. And yet, the result is tasteful, if a little funny at first.
It would even be naturally danceable if it weren't for its very slow beats clocking at ~ 50 BPM.
There's a lot more on this album: Danzarin, La bordona, Zum, La yumba... They are beautifully produced and very moving; it's just that they are "across the line" that I draw between tangos for dancing vs listening.
The second album, Variations, has a similarly split focus.
The rendition of Adiós corazón is breathtaking in its beauty. When Love's saxophone joins to sing the melody, it's so mellow, so smooth it sounds almost like a clarinet - and it sounds like it belongs. Then later when the main theme repeats, he brings up what might've been a bass saxophone, definitely one with a very deep register, a delivers a jazz-like improvisation while the beats go on. Even with this notable cross-over, I feel like even very orthodox dancers would be visibly moved by this piece.
Milonga orillera is a cover of Orillera by Canaro's "Quitento Pirincho" delivered with fidelity and even more bravado. We hear some jazz-like improvisation here and there, but overall the milonga runs its course with regularity and should please milonga aficionados everywhere. Hopefully, the next album will gift us another milonga to make a tanda! 🙏
Mi dolor starts with urgent staccatos and both the violin and Love's saxophones retell the story in very compelling terms. The occasional improvisation adds to the suspense without breaking the beat. I was completely sold by this cover!
Ilusion de mi vida sounded so familiar to me I was sure I had the prior versions of this vals in my library. To my astonishment, I found none. There are supposedly recordings by Brunelli, Salgán, and Color Tango, but I'd be shocked if I heard either at a milonga.
Be that as it may, this is a delightful vals made for dancing and guaranteed to force even the most serious dancers to smile as they rotate on the dancefloor.
Let's finish our review with Ojos negros, an imaginative reinterpretation of a rather dark son that maxes out the suspense and ventures into the "nuevo" territory. I was captivated throughout even as I had to admit that this is not an everyday milonga material. And if you feel differently, there are other songs on the album that I haven't included as they fall outside of my DJing range: Adios nonino, Lo que vendrá, ... Again, I encourage you to go beyond my selection and give the whole album your attention: you'll be rewarded with a unique musical experience. And who knows, maybe you can dance to beats that I can't interpret myself!
I often feel silly when trying to describe the state of consciousness that happens when you listen to music. Words are ultimately failing at this job, and could they not? I admit this freely as my goal is not so much to write compelling prose as it is to inspire you, the dancer, to give a chance to tangos as they are being played and recorded today.
It should be clear now that Tangótica is a band that deserves a lot of attention. I haven't heard them play live, and I'd be very curious to see how they connect with dancers.
That might be easier for the Argentinian bands that grew up inside the culture they are interpreting as opposed to us transplants. I'd imagine that having the opportunity to frequently perform for a domestic audience that is fluent in the idioms you're speaking must give one a big advantage.
Listening to their most danceable pieces, I nevertheless feel that Tangótica would have no problems casting spells and charming their dancing audience. Perhaps I'll one day have the chance to verify this with my feet; for now, let me conclude that I'm awaiting their next album, whenever it may come, with great anticipation.