Tango No. 9 explores tango music in all its myriad manifestations — traditional dance music, vocal ballads, tango nuevo, and more recent compositions — bringing an idiosyncratic twist to each. The trio of instruments — violin, piano, and trombone — may seem a far cry from the more traditional orquesta tipica, but the group’s ingenious arrangements capture a much larger sound, while the unorthodox brass instrument adds a new dimension to the mix. The group rebuilds old warhorses like “La Cumparsita” and “El Choclo”, and also digs deep into the more obscure nooks and crannies of the tango repertoire to unearth some rare gems. Tenor Zoltan DiBartolo mixes operatic training with a natural theatricality and a pop sensibility honed in the trenches of late-night warehouse parties and applies it to the most romantic and heart-breaking songs the world has ever known.
Astor Piazzolla, the group’s first love, is single-handedly responsible for wrenching the tango out of the moribund 40s and 50s and plunging it kicking and screaming — and alive! —into the tumultuous 60s and 70s. To the traditional habañera rhythms he added classical composition techniques he had studied with legendary Parisian coach Nadia Boulanger, the jazz rhythms and improvisations he grew up with in New York City, and incongruous elements like odd meters and atonality to forge a synthesis that was a true innovation: tango nuevo. Tango No. 9 pays tribute to this master with both respectful recreations and original interpretations of pieces from the entire range of his career, from his most well-known “Adios, Nonino,” “Libertango,” and “Oblivion” to the rarely performed “Coral” and “Revolucionario”.
The group also offers tangos of more recent vintage, with band members Greg Stephens and Joshua Raoul Brody contributing original compositions. And almost from their inception they cultivated a prolific relationship with Argentine composer Alejandro Oyuela, whose “Radio Valencia” is the title track of their second CD. Most recently Oyuela set three poems by Allen Ginsberg for the current line-up of the group, featuring DiBartolo.
All Them Cats in Recoleta captures the band near its inception, when it was dedicated primarily to the music of Astor Piazzolla. Founding member Odile Lavault plays bandoneon, shortly before she left the group to devote her attentions to her own ensemble, Baguette Quartette. The music is by turns austere, dreamy, and eerie.
Radio Valencia, the first CD to feature Tango No. 9′s “classic” line-up (Clune, Stephens, Brody and Douglass) is self-deprecatingly referred to by group members as “Band 1; Dancers 0″. A wrenching 180º turn from the first album, the set list here is almost entirely traditional dance music, but played at a breakneck pace that left many listeners gasping … some with exhilaration, others with exhaustion. The album also features the group’s first vocal efforts: Gigi Gamble offers a smoky “Malena”, while composer Alejandro Oyuela takes the lead on one of two versions of his composition, from which the CD got its title.
Here Live No Fish is the most eclectic of the band’s recorded output, running a gamut from contemporary compositions like Stephens’ title track, Brody’s “Sultango,” and Dmitri Matheny’s “Sea of Tranquility” to new takes on old standards like “Mozo Guapo” and a heretical reworking of the ultimate tango, “La Cumparsita”. Also featured are Oyuela’s “Milonga Campera”, Piazzolla’s famous “Libertango”, a re-arrangement of a theme by Prokofiev, and the inimitable Jonathan Richman crooning Agustin Lara’s “Amor de Mis Amores”.
After the group was invited to play at a new music festival in Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, they fell in love with the acoustics and the eerie (but by no means creepy) vibe of the place, and resolved to record there. The result, Live at the Columbarium, is as varied as its predecessor, but with more of a focus on the more stately side of tango, a music more commonly associated with bar rooms and brothels than with chapels. Piazzolla is the source of a generous portion of the set, including his little-heard chamber piece “Coral” and one of his rare vocal settings, “Chilquilín de Bachín”, along with Brecht & Weill’s “There Was A Time” and some new versions of old Tango No. 9 favorites.
Tango No. 9 was founded by Catharine Clune when Club Foot Orchestra, the medium-sized big band best known for its pioneering work in accompanying silent film, went into hiatus and she wanted to start a new project more manageable in size. She and Greg Stephens, a friend from college who was running a non-profit new music organization, settled on Astor Piazzolla as a worthy subject to tackle, and enlisted French squeezebox maven Odile Lavault and pianist Joshua Raoul Brody (who Clune knew from Club Foot). They began a residency at Radio Valencia, a delightful little café on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. They soon developed a small but fervent following, including a couple of Argentine expatriates one of whom, composer Alejandro Oyuela, brought a first date to see them. He commemorated this romantic evening in his song “Radio Valencia” (title track of the band’s second CD), and he and that date — dancer Alisa Adams — have now been happily married for over a decade, and are beginning to bring their son Django to Tango No. 9 shows.
Once the band found its footing with the Piazzolla songbook, they began to delve backward into the history of tango, and added more danceable tunes to their repertoire, thus making them more attractive for playing milongas, as Argentine dance parties are called. A flurry of changes both personal and personnel finally culminated with the band going into hibernation for a couple of years, but they eventually re-grouped with Brody returning and Isabel Douglass filling out the quartet on accordion and bandoneon. This line-up —plus the occasional guest vocalist — released three more CDs and conducted several west coast tours. Tenor Zoltan DiBartolo soon introduced himself and, after a brief internship, was asked to become a formal member of the group just as Douglass was moving to Europe.