I've been listening to Troilo a lot recently. There are some 40 albums available for listening online, but so little information is given that it's hard to know the date of the original LP or 78 releases(1). The album-cover photo usually gives a clue: the chubby-faced young man with slicked-back black hair becomes heavier-faced until we reach the unmistakeable 'El Gordo', hair no longer so black, but still slicked back. Some of the recordings are in stereo, another clue. & the later recordings, from the 1950s onwards are often as a quartet, since dancers were abandoning tango, and orquestas are expensive to run.
I could recognise the music of D'Arienzo, Di Sarli and Pugliese early on. Pedro Laurenz I discovered late one night on the commute back from a London milonga three years ago, when my ear picked out Paisaje from some mixed tracks, and I played it over and over, amazed at the orchestration. But although I recognise pieces by Troilo, until recently I've not found his music so easy to distinguish.
& for dancing he's definitely not easy. For a start, those rhythms are complicated. 'Makes me think of Joaquín' a partner remarked recently during a Troilo tanda, thinking of a few hours spent with musician Joaquín Amenábar exploring how the same rhythmic phrase can get repeated, with variations, within a single track. Milonga is directly rhythmic, closer to 'steps' and to our own dance background, with less phrasing, fewer melodic lines. Robert Farris Thompson (2) talks about the rhythmic intensity of Troilo's 1962 recording, with his quartet, of the milonga La Trampera; '...habanera at fast tempo, jazz bass, art guitar, even a phrase from old samba...'(3). & it rocks, in an elegant musical way. A pity it didn't stem the tide of rock 'n' roll!
Troilo's rhythms are complex, but on top of them in his tangos there's sensuous lyricism in the phrasing, which demands a different response. Phrasing is the aspect of tango I have most difficulty with. Rhythm is a common dance experience, and keeping a basic beat is hardly a problem, but phrases in tango mean thinking in terms of melodic sequences of more than a few beats, thinking ahead to the end of the phrase, with variations of intensity and speed within it. Phrasing has never been mentioned in any class I can remember: I first came across it in Tangoandchaos, the idea of dancing with the feet to the rhythm and with the body to the melody, the phrases. We learn steps and sequences, and if we're lucky we learn about rhythms, but phrasing may be too indefinite, too subjective, for classes. Maybe Joaquín could teach it, alongside rhythm, if he had time. I think it's a feature of good Buenos Aires tango, which doesn't mean we can't live without it. And yet.
& it's difficult. Just watch those milongueros and see how smoothly they follow the phrasing of the music with their upper bodies. It looks wonderful, and very satisfying too, but unless you know the music really well, a phrase can be half finished before you get your feet in place to respond. Rhythms are easy to recognise, but without (and even with) some musical background, particularly in the Italian folk and opera traditions, which were so important to tango, it's hard to respond to those singing phrases that follow the breathing of a sung line. Almost all tango starts as song, and watching the old dancers is like watching singing with the body instead of the voice. (& maybe with the voice too...)
Until five years ago, to watch Buenos Aires social dancing meant a long and expensive trip: these days it's beginning to be possible to to see how social tango looks simply by logging into YouTube. Unfortunately these days we never get to see or meet these older salon dancers in London, although they visit Europe regularly. Ah! I'm re-re-repeating myself...
Here's Troilo and his orquesta. I guess this was a few years before his death in 1975.
Video thanks to elmundoalreves1.
(1) On Spotify. The dates are of the UK CD releases I think. (2) Tango: the art history of love, pp. 132-3. (3) On the 1962 Cuarteto Troilo-Grela album, Pa' Que Bailen Los Muchachos. (Apologies for the footnotes!)