2021 is the Astor Piazzolla centenary. The notoriously combative godfather of nuevo tango would probably be asking us right now, “Why aren’t you fighting harder?” Whatever the case in your part of the world, the fight for reason and normalcy is growing toward critical mass right now, and to inspire us, we have a vast number of recordings which were assembled over the web during the lockdown. One of the most gripping is Los Tangueros del Oeste‘s new album Alma Vieja (Old Soul), streaming at Spotify. It’s a transcontinental collaboration by a colorful, expert cast of tango musicians helmed by bassist Sascha Jacobsen and crooner Manuel Berterreix. This is a gorgeous and cutting-edge record.
The opening instrumental, Reflexión coalceses out of a dissociative, polyrhythmic introduction to a stern, unhurried theme, Charles Gorczynski’s bandoneón wafting over Pablo Estigarribia’s glittering piano lines as Carlos Caminos’ guitar fingerpicking mingles into the mix. Violinist Ishtar Hernandez signals a dip toward longing, then the ensemble pick up the energy again. It’s all the more impressive considering that all the individual tracks were recorded remotely in very different sonic environments.
Berterreix makes his entrance on the album’s defiant title track, an anguished sendoff to loved ones (and loved places) lost during the lockdown. The music slowly sways along over an echoey drum machine pattern; here, it’s Adrian Jost’s pulsing bandoneon that’s subtly echoed by Estigarribia.
Jacobsen’s stately, ominously strutting bass propels the instrumental Bordoneo y 2020, referencing the classic tango Bordoneo y 900. María Volonté’s heartfelt spoken word introduces El Rumbo de mi Corazón, a surreal mashup of nuevo tango and reggaeton. The instrumental La Máscara portrays the most loaded image in the world since March of 2020 with a sinister, phantasmagorical strut, aching violin and dramatic piano: clearly, Jacobsen gets the big picture.
The brooding Milonga de los Muertos is basically a trip-hop tune, a requiem for Jacobsen’s grandmother, whom he lost on the Day of the Dead in 2019. La Historia de Zola Lapiz (an anagram of a certain famous composer’s last name) is spiced with the occasional Piazzolla reference. That drummer Ari Refusta and percussionist Marlon Aldana were able to overdub themselves seamlessly into the mix – bolstered by Lewis Patzner’s cello – is impressive, to say the least. The conflagration at the end is one of the high points of the album.
The bouncy, carefree Carreta Antigua (Old Carriage) borrows from indigenous Argentine music – it’s practically a cumbia beat. A Pampa Cortés – a salute to the famous tango dancer – has an aptly lithe but also wary sway and a clever interweave of counterpoint. Un Bajo de Magia (Bass Magic) is a playful vehicle for Jacobsen’s multitracks on a small orchestra’s worth of basses, Gorczynski winding around before pianist Seth Asarnow adds a carnivalesque touch.
Everything heats up at the end of the album. El Bombero (The Fire Truck) is the closest thing to psychedelic cumbia here, complete with Berterreix’s rap. True to its title, the cheery, Italian-flavored El Torbellino (The Whirlpool) has an increasingly complex web of rhythms, vocally and otherwise.
The final number is Zamba Zefardim, continuing the venerable Piazzolla tradition of blending tango with Jewish melodies. His early years living next to a synagogue would serve him well as a composer; Jacobsen draws on his own Sephardic background in the album’s most lushly dynamic, orchestral instrumental.