Fitting this ambitious project into his hectic schedule must've been a challenge for producer/writer Gustavo Santaolalla. He's better known as the Grammy-winning composer of Hollywood film scores such as Babel and Brokeback
Mountain, as well as the mastermind behind 'electrotango' iconoclasts Bajofondo, but Café de los Maestros is far more traditional, and a real labour of love. More than five years after he began work on this retro showcase for the remaining stars of Argentinean tango from the 1940s and 1950s (just before the seismic reinventions of Astor Piazzolla), it's finally arrived, and is well worth the wait. The only shame is that some of these icons have already passed on, though this lends it a Buena Vista Social Club-like poignancy.
There are too many artists involved to do them all justice, but a few highlights deserve a mention. Most striking among the vocalists is the late Lágrima Ríos, the 'Black Pearl of tango' from Argentina's small neighbour Uruguay. Her two vibrato-laden songs both employ just guitar-and-voice, with Santaolalla contributing an exquisite harmony vocal on the swinging creole waltz Un Cielo Para Los Dos. There are also great performances from divas, Virginia Luque (whose intensely theatrical delivery suggests tango's answer to Liza Minnelli) and Nelly Omar, backed on another waltz by a rustic gaucho ensemble of guitars and harp. Like the above two, Oscar Ferrari has a remarkably well preserved and rather androgynous voice, and twenty-something Cristóbal Repetto brings his extraordinary 'gramophone' voice to the duet Alma en Pena with veteran Juan Carlos Godoy.
The balance of this handsomely annotated double CD is instrumental, ranging from the sweepy, swooning orquestas of Horacio Salgán, Leopoldo Federico et al. to quintets, quartets and soloists on piano and bandoneón. With great verve, Carlos Lázzari tackles two standards he played during a quarter
century in Juan D'Arienzo's orquesta. He gives La Puñalada a fresh, sprightly kick, and speeds up the suspenseful pauses and manic struts of the done-to-death La Cumparsita. And the delicate, ravishingly detailed arrangements of Tanguera and Taquito Militar by Mariano Mores y Orquesta are simply to die for. ¡Bravo!