The Tanguarda performance at Carablanca ten days ago left me slightly confused. The concert, mainly of Piazzolla, was pretty good, apart from over-amplification: at their loudest the violin seemed to screech, and the double bass came over as a booming thud. But I found I got little from their sets for dance. Dancing to live music is usually magical: I remember being very moved by Joaquín Amenábar's solo bandoneon at Carablanca some months back, moved emotionally but even more in the sense that the sound he made led me to move. 'Golden age' recordings do that. But Tanguarda...
Listening to Orquesta Escuela Tango on the train this evening, I started thinking about this. (It's been renamed Orquesta Escuela Emilio Balcarce in honour of the violinist, bandoneonista and arranger who grew up in the golden age and worked for some 20 years with Pugliese. A fuller story is on the video Si Sos Brujo.) There's a wonderful elasticity of rhythm in their playing, which is a characteristic of the golden age recordings. A phrase can be very slightly slowed as an introduction, as a springboard to another voice, another instrument entering, making up for lost time. I think this is a legacy of musicians learning to play by playing together, by listening to each other. The musicians in the Orquesta are all young and learned to play in school, but maestros like Emilio Balcarce have schooled them in playing by ear, rather than by the literal printed note. It was this quality that struck me in the first tango lesson I ever went to: the music was alive, it seemed to draw me forwards, hold me back. I think of this instinctive and quite precise use of shifting tempo as the idiom of tango.
I felt this was missing in Tanguarda. They are highly trained European musicians and they make all the right noises, but their music is flat alongside the Orquesta, or Color Tango, or even Astilleros (definitely not golden age), as if it shouts at you rather than gently leading you. They are a quartet, so perhaps a good comparison would be with D'Agostino, who often recorded as a quintet. There's a kind of easy clarity about his music, a few quiet chords on the piano effortlessly supports a bandoneon line, which itself leads into a violin line that seems to arise as a part of it. There's a total harmony, five musicians all part of the same music, and dancers still want to move to it all night long.
I think Tanguarda are more at home in concert tango, and in Piazzolla in particular, music written to be listened to rather than danced to. I don't think they play as a dance band, possibly they don't even have much feeling for dance tango.