Monday, May 28, 2007
La Chicana at the Torcuato Tasso
This was the last of four shows that La Chicana played at the Torcuato Tasso over the past two weekends, and the place was more crowded than I have ever seen it. They even had extra tables set up in the back hallway by the bathrooms, and every seat was taken. For good reason, too: while La Chicana is well known and liked in Argentina, you would probably be more likely to see them play live in London or Madrid, where they tour regularly, than you would here in Buenos Aires, where they play only a few times a year. Maybe it was the size of the crowd or the rarity of the occasion—or maybe it was the simple excitement of it being Saturday night in Buenos Aires again—but there was a real charge in the air before the music got started. That energy made for a great temporary adieu to the Tasso itself, which is going to be closed for at least the next month while the building is renovated.
The cosmopolitanism of La Chicana’s performance schedule is reflected in their music, making them sound like much more than a tango band, though their songs, style, and attitude are clearly rooted in the genre. Or, I should say, in the genre’s roots. Centered around the core duo of singer Dolores Solá and songwriter/guitarist Acho Estol, La Chicana draws their inspiration from tango’s formative moment in the early 20th century, when the genre was just beginning to emerge from the social and musical mix of immigrant Buenos Aires. So while they are one of the few contemporary groups to write and perform original tangos—no small feat in the highly critical and nostalgic atmosphere that surrounds the genre today—the group positions themselves more as time traveling participants in early tango history than some kind of contemporary vanguard. Which is not to say that their music sounds old. Indeed, their poppy mix of guitar, electric bass, violin, bandoneón, and percussion would probably go over as well if not better in international world music venues like Joe’s Pub in New York than it would in some Buenos Aires tango clubs.
At the same time, they are not a world music band: while La Chicana’s overall style and instrumentation are clearly influenced by international pop music of all sorts, at the musical level Estol’s original songs adhere quite strictly to the general characteristics of tango and its two related sub-genres, milonga and vals. In other words, when they play tango they play tango, they just also happen to play cumbias, chacarreras, fados, and Tom Waits covers (translated into Spanish, of course). They even do a funky rendition of the first movement from J.S. Bach’s concerto for two violins, BWV 1043! Violinist Osiris Rodríguez—who along with being the hardest working man in tango, playing not only with La Chicana but also other key groups such as El Arranque and Astillero, is also an accomplished classical musician—knocked out the Bach piece from memory. Meanwhile bandoneonist Patricio “Tripa” Bonfiglio, who played the second violin part and whose experience in baroque chamber music is probably a bit more limited, was glued to his music, sweating away.
Aside from these and other instrumental acrobatics, the real star of the show was singer Dolores Solá, a woman who has more glamour in her French-manicured pinky finger than all the rest of the tango musicians in town combined. On stage Solá comes off as larger than life, like a move star on the screen (she in fact did appear in the recent Argentine film Ciudad en Celo (City in Heat), whose soundtrack was done by Estol). Her stage presence is backed up by her voice, which is at once powerful and delicate, both serious and playful. She brings little to none of the “grasa” tear-jerking so standard among mainstream tango singers with her to the stage, instead relying on an expressive nimbleness that can have her sounding like a seductive lover in one phrase and a scolding mother in the next, all the while keeping firmly at the helm of the party that is La Chicana’s live show.
Combined with Estol’s highly original, varied, and memorable songs, Solá and the band come across as quirky and irreverent without being ironic or distanced, rooted in the tango tradition without loosing themselves in devotion to it. It is a refreshing combination, and I am ready to wait it out for my next chance to hear them live, however long that might be.
La Chicana, Lejos (Acqua Records) 2006.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Dino Saluzzi Familia at the 6th Buenos Aires Jazz y Otras Músicas Festival
Dino Saluzzi is one of those musicians who should be put in the “unclassifiable” section of your iTunes library. A master bandoneón player originally from the Salta province in northern Argentina who has spend long periods living in Buenos Aires and in Europe, Saluzzi sounds equally comfortable playing regional folk music, tango, modern jazz, and contemporary classical music, as attested to by his extensive and wide ranging discography as both a leader and a sideman. His original music sounds simultaneously committed to each of these styles, making it both highly complex but also deeply expressive and feelingful. His bandoneón playing echoes these same tendencies, ranging from edgy, almost crystalline improvisatory lines that bring to mind the work of brainiac saxophonist Steve Coleman to fantastically low, barely rhythmic rumblings that evoke both the oppressive heat of a summer in Salta and the origins of the bandoneón as a pipe organ replacement in poor German churches circa 1860. To that expressive range, Saluzzi adds an attention to sonic detail that, in my experience, is nearly unrivaled: you know a guy is serious about sound when he brings his own microphones and mixing equipment to the gig! This focus on sound makes Saluzzi the perfect artist for German music producer Manfred Eicher’s ECM record label, for which Saluzzi has been recording in one way or another since 1985.
Not only is Saluzzi a talented guy, but he also has a talented family: aside from Dino on the bandoneón, tonight’s band featured Dino’s brother Félix Saluzzi on saxophone and clarinet; his son José Saluzzi on guitar; his other son Matías Saluzzi on electric bass; and (I believe) his son-in-law Gabriel Said on drums and percussion. He even brought out his niece, whose name I did not catch (it was "something Saluzzi"), as a guest artist to play flute on a few songs. This kind of “family band” setup would surely feel gimmicky if they were not so damn good, and I left the concert convinced that there must be a gene for musical talent and creativity that has yet to be discovered. Either that or there is something special in the water back at the Saluzzi family home. Whatever it is, the Saluzzi familia, as individuals and as a whole, has got it. The concert unfolded as a series of flawlessly executed compositions of tremendous scope and range, each of which was approached with a calm, poised intensity that kept much of the large audience rapt despite the deliberately low volume levels, which made some passages sound like little more than a whisper. Guitarist José Saluzzi brought a particularly delicate touch to the group, shining on a folkloric-tinged homage to Argentine icon Atahualpa Yupanqui, which, like much of what played this night, was at once rooted in the sound and tradition of Argentine music and extended far beyond it.
But despite my ravings, not everyone in the audience liked the betwixt and between approach of the band as much as I did. After the second song a real heckler approached the stage—a young guy with a guitar bag over his shoulder and a whole bottle of wine in his hand—yelling “this is a jazz festival: play jazz, play jazz!!!” As the security guards gently escorted him away from the stage and out of the venue, Dino replied “This is the youth of today for you! A bunch of drunks and drug addicts!” This in turn elicited loud cries to the contrary from the largely young audience, who clearly did not appreciate being dismissed as a generation en masse because one joker who happened to be young acted out. A few more songs had to go by before the audience felt like it had really settled down from this incident, and in that time a small stream of people who clearly did not like what they were hearing also headed for the doors. At least they did not feel like they had to yell about it too.
Saluzzi’s music, for all its expressiveness, is not the most accessible, even compared to some of the modern jazz figures that are sharing the bill at this city government sponsored festival, so I am not surprised that not everyone enjoyed it. (I should also say that the vast majority stayed and gave the group a standing ovation and demanded encores in typical Argentine fashion.) But I also wonder, however, if there might be a more generalized hostility towards Saluzzi here in Argentina, because he won’t play tango (or jazz, or folklore, or...) “the right way,” or because he has spent so much time living abroad? I will have to ask around to really find out about that, but even Saluzzi found the tension coming from the audience noteworthy. “It is always hard to play at home,” he announced from the stage early in the concert. “Tonight, after the concert, I am not going back to the hotel, I am going to my house. I am at home.” Instead of responding to this with cheers, as I would have expected from such a speech in such a context, the audience let out little more than a murmur peppered with some lackluster applause, and waited for the next song to start.
Dino Saluzzi Group, Juan Condori (ECM) 2005.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Rodolfo Mederos Orquesta Típica at Parque Lezama
This was the first in a series of city-sponsored concerts in the lovely if bustling park that lies on the border between the San Telmo and La Boca neighborhoods in the southern section of Buenos Aires. Though sponsored in part by the tourism board of the city, the event felt like it was focused more on making something special happen for the people who live in the neighborhood than drawing the throngs of tourists down the hill from the relentless San Telmo antiques market taking place just a few blocks up the street. It was also a way for the Torcuato Tasso, which is located across the street from the park, to give something back to its neighbors: all three of the bands featured in this series have recently played in the Tasso, where cover charges can range upwards of $30 or $40 pesos. Those are fair prices for the quality of what is heard at the club (and shockingly low if you are a foreign tourist with dollars or euros in your bank account), but they are, unfortunately, much more than many Argentines can afford to pay. This show, on the other hand, was free. With that incentive, and despite the brisk temperatures, a lot of people turned out, and the festive atmosphere of most public events here—vendors hawking sandwiches and sweets, dogs running around, children playing, people huddled together sharing mate tea, etc—was well established even before the band took the stage.
Born in 1940, bandoneonist, composer, and arranger Rodolfo Mederos is what I think of as a “middle generation” tanguero: in his youth he played with some of the genre’s legendary figures, and now, as one of the genre’s living maestros, he has extended himself to a younger generation of musicians who never even had the chance to see those legends play live. That outreach has not always been 100% positive, and Mederos is something of a polemical figure today, though his impact as a performer and educator is undeniable. Even this concert had a bit of an educational slant to it, with Mederos treating the audience to a veritable encyclopedia of tango styles and ensembles. He started the show with a haunting bandoneón solo, followed by a few selections in a trio format with bass and guitar. As he announced from the stage, these songs were selected from the early tango repertoire, circa 1915, and performed in an unadorned style that he believed maintained their brutish urgency. He next invited the pianist and a violinist to the stage and performed a few pieces from his own quintet repertoire with them, modern tangos that were almost dizzying with melodic twists and harmonic modulations yet remained intuitively connected to the repertoire heard just before.
Eventually the full orquesta made it to the stage—thirteen musicians in all—and launched into a long series of classic and original tangos for dancing. Indeed, Mederos made a huge (almost browbeating) point of how tango music is first and foremost popular dance music, and how his return to the orquesta típica format and its danceable repertoire represented a renewed political commitment to that vision on his part. Despite this pontificating, the vast majority of the audience stayed put for most of the show, though several dancers were eventually roused from their seats (the couple that got it started just happened to be passing by, coming over to dance a few songs while on their way to somewhere else). The spontaneous appearance of the dancers proved not only that tango as a popular dance genre is still alive in Buenos Aires, but also that like the music, the dance is not exactly what it might have once been: along with the older couple and the few aficionados, there was a group of two women dancing together, and, even more noteworthy, a woman dancing by herself. Mederos seemed pleased if not exactly happy: “I am glad to see that some people have understood what this is all about,” he said of the dancers/to the rest of us, “next time maybe more of you will.”
Rodolfo Mederos Orquesta Típica, Comunidad (DBN) 2007.