Remember the “Forever Tango” craze back in the ’90s?
Charles Gorczynski does. It changed his life.
“I grew up in Milwaukee, and my parents were both tango dancers,” said Gorczynski, who plays bandoneon in a well-respected Oakland-based tango band, the Redwood Tango Ensemble, which will perform at San Clemente’s Casa Romantica on Thursday. “They were caught up in the tango craze that swept the country. So, of course, I wanted nothing to do with it. You’re never into what your mom and dad are doing.”
Instead, Gorczynski devoted himself to jazz, and he has a long history as a recording and performing jazz musician.
Then something strange happened. As a young adult, Gorczynski started getting drawn toward the seductive rhythms and deft ensemble work that characterize tango. “I loved the music, and it was part of my family for such a long time that it just grew on me without my even realizing it.”
The only problem the aspiring tango musician faced was that there were no tango bands in the midwest. “I moved to the San Francisco area because in many ways it is the home for tango in the U.S. There are a huge number of excellent tango dancers and social dancing events here. If you’re a tango musician and you want to work for a living, this is the place to be.”
San Francisco has a special relationship to tango, dating back to “Forever Tango.” Created and directed by Luis Bravo, the popular evening of music and dance played an unprecedented 92 weeks at San Francisco’s Theater on the Square, and it has returned almost every year since the mid-1990s. It was voted Best Touring Musical by the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.
Gorczynski’s years in the Bay area began with hours of intense scholarship. “There are no scores that you can find for this music,” he said. “I spent years transcribing it. In the process, I met a lot of tango experts from Argentina, the birthplace of the art form, and I worked with a lot of different (tango) bands in the area.”
Eventually, Gorczynski put together a group of his own. “It was mostly people from the classical chamber music scene and the jazz community,” he said. “But they all had a unifying connection: they’re adventurous and expressive players. They’re all very open to experimenting.”
Gorczynski contends that tango is an Argentine art form dating from the dawn of the twentieth century, born in Buenos Aires, drawing on influences from the Argentine countryside and the arrival of European immigrants arriving in the industrialized city around 1900.
“It was a melting pot, very intense, with people from very different cultures living in close quarters and making music together.” Tango arose from the cultural amalgam.
“And like jazz, tango wasn’t respected in the greater world in the beginning,” Gorczynski pointed out. “The larger band format ‘orquesta tipicas’ developed while playing social dancing.” Over the years, the size of the band shrunk for financial and practical reasons, Gorczynski said.
Today, his ensemble is typical of modern tango groups: besides his distinctive-sounding bandoneon (a type of concertina, it’s the most purely idiomatic tango instrument), Redwood Tango Ensemble consists of Elyse Weakley on piano, Anton Estaniel on cello, Ishtar Hernandez and Mia Bella D’Augelli on violins, and Daniel Fabricant on bass.
Piazzolla changed everything
The artistry of tango music comes not through improvisation, as in jazz, but in the shaping of musical phrases. Gorczynski explained. “There’s a lot of artistry to how a band chooses to phrase. It’s the way that a tango band defines its character. They might have a bar that contains four repeated eighth notes and they’ll rush each one increasingly to get to the downbeat.” That approach means that every tango ensemble performs the same song differently, even though they’re playing exactly the same notes.
Redwood has a mandate to explore cutting-edge tango music – the kind practiced since the early days of Astor Piazzolla in the 1950s. Piazzolla was an Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player and arranger whose work completely transformed the traditional tango into a new style, labeled “nuevo tango,” that freely used elements of jazz and classical music.
In the early days of nuevo tango, “Dancers hated it; people did not consider it tango music,” Gorczynski said. “It was like what happened when Charlie Parker and his contemporaries hit the jazz scene. It shifted this music from the dance hall into the concert hall. It created a rift in the art form.”
Starting around 2000, a new generation of tango composers pushed the boundaries of the form even further. “It’s some of the most interesting tango music ever written,” Gorczynski said. In addition to performing its own music, Redwood plays a lot of material from this generation of composers.
But his group has neither forgotten nor neglected tango’s roots. “We also embrace and perform traditional tango,” Gorczynski said. “We study it deeply and play for milongas with love and respect – as a band that can collaborate with dancers.”
Partly, that’s where the money is Gorczynski says. “But it’s also important to do it for style reasons. Connecting with dancers is really fundamental to this music. You can’t ever lose touch with that.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: Quotes in this story were updated for clarification.