Luckily, I’m a fan of downtempo electronica, because it has become nearly impossible to avoid, whether in a hotel bar, a trendy restaurant or a clothing store at the mall. The success of releases like the Café del Mar series initially compiled by José Padilla, which featured the Balearic-influenced mellow electronica spun at its namesake bar in San Antonio, Ibiza, spawned what seemed like hundreds of imitators: Flamenco Chill, Buddha Bar, Hotel Costes, Bargrooves, Bhangra Bliss, Serve Chilled, Winter Chill, Chillout Sessions, Ultra Chill, Brazilian Lounge. Despite the fact that most of this music just wasn’t that interesting, this new sub-genre of electronica did produce some truly inspired musical collaborations, which combined seemingly unrelated musical styles, often to remarkable effect. But for every Thievery Corporation or Gotan Project, there were dozens of uninspired, and mostly unsuccessful, attempts.
Which brings me to Palermo Nuevo, the first album by Tango Jointz, a collaboration between Grammy-nominated producer Claus Zundel and a group of Argentinean musicians, including Ricardo “Ricardito” Reveira and Bellma Cespedes. Billed as a combination between “a cosmopolitan downtempo vibe” and “the breathless passion of the apex of Argentine tango”, the disc purports to update tango’s “dark and sultry past” for the modern age. Not surprisingly, the press release overstates things a bit.
Remarkably, Zundel and his collaborators have managed to suck the heat, energy and sensuality out of the tango, instead turning it into background music. That’s not to say the disc is terrible: it certainly has its bright spots. Most of those, however, are cover tunes. Highlights include two songs written by Ástor Piazzola, the legendary Argentinean composer and bandoneón (a reed instrument that resembles a concertina) player, who pioneered the jazz-influenced tango nuevo style. The first, “Libertango”, is carried by a bandoneón melody accented with mellow piano and what sounds like the occasional violin, all over the top of a moderately groovy midtempo rhythm track. The second, “Vuelvo al Sur”, features Spanish-language vocals by Ricardo Reveira, but its more conventional arrangement pales in comparison to “Libertango”.
Oddly, a couple of songs bear virtually no resemblance to the tango at all: “Alone Together” sounds like nothing so much as Chet Baker backed by a spartan rhythm section of bass and drums, augmented by the plaintive sound of a bandoleon, while “Nuit Sur Les Champs-Élysées” channels vintage Miles Davis. Written by Davis himself, the song originally appeared on the soundtrack to the 1957 French film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), an early example of film noir directed by Louis Malle. Propelled by a slow walking bass line, the trumpet melody somehow manages to sound both sinister and relaxed.
I wanted to like this album, I really did. But although it has its moments, it’s a little dull.