Tuesday, April 17, 2007
El Arranque at Velma Café
El Arranque is one of the pillar groups of the contemporary tango scene in Buenos Aires, having gotten their start a bit more than ten years ago when most everyone was writing tango off for dead, especially among younger audiences and musicians. What a difference a decade makes: the group has since made five acclaimed discs, toured the world several times over (including a recent jaunt to Hong Kong), collaborated with international institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and helped build a newly committed audience for tango here in Argentina. Several key artists of the new generation of tango have passed through the group’s ranks—including the singer Ariel Ardit and violinist and composer Ramiro Gallo, both of whom I have written about in previous entries—and the group has developed highly productive collaborations with several “grandes” of the previous generation, including Raul Garello, Julio Pane, and Nestor Marconi. They have also been committed to cultivating a new generation of young musicians through their relationship with the Orquesta Escuela del Tango, a training group supported by the city government of Buenos Aires that has cranked out what feels like an army of highly trained young players over the past several years.
The band is a septet of two bandoneones, two violins, piano, bass, and guitar plus singer. This instrumentation, though somewhat augmented by the addition of guitar, puts the group, in my mind at least, within the well worn sextet tradition of tango, represented most recently (and most famously) by the Sexteto Mayor. It is an interesting instrumental mix, because it gives the ensemble a density and power that you just don’t get from even slightly smaller groups such as quintets while at the same time retaining a nimbleness and dexterity that is hard to cultivate in the larger Orquesta Típica format (which usually feature ten to twelve players). One of the pleasures of hearing El Arranque is following how they take advantage of and balance these different tendencies. On the one hand, both their arrangements and original pieces have a compositional and contrapuntal density that at moments can rival that of chamber music, making each piece a real musical journey for the close listener. On the other hand, they lay down the rhythmic base of the music in a way that gets people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor. Striking that balance between the artistic and the popular tendencies of the genre—especially in the post-Piazzolla age that seems to emphasize either/or—is one of the strongest features of the group. That the band seems to take genuine pleasure from playing makes it all that much better.
On this night, the only thing really working against them was the performance space itself. I hate to say it, but the main concert space at Velma Café just does not sound very good. This is a shame, because I know a lot of thought and money went into designing the place, and it is not like there is an overabundance of higher-end performance venues in Buenos Aires that are committed to presenting tango the way Velma is coming to do. Indeed, El Arranque will be setting up shop there every Friday night in April and May, continuing a tradition of weekly gigs they had going for nearly five years at the now defunct Club del Vino, which sadly closed its doors last September. The flat acoustics of the cavernous space seem to be the real killer (the ceilings are at least 25 feet high). Because of that, almost no acoustic sound from the band makes it past the fourth wall, which in turn makes them sound and feel very, very far away even from only halfway back in the audience. There must be some kind of solution (acoustic reflectors above the stage like they have at the Royal Albert Hall?), probably none of which would be cheap. I am no expert in these matters, of course, but I do hope something can be worked out over time, because as it is, taking in a concert at Velma Cafe, to rev up the old cliché, feels so close, yet so far.