Tango Bitter Sweet starts with an accessible, understated tango, "L’été Indien." This engaging, inviting piece highlights the strengths of each of the musicians as it courses from guitarist Robert Wolf’s light vamp under Mulo Francel’s tenor sax performance of the melody, which undergoes several phases, from suggestive dance rhythm to quieted calmness and back again to the controlled lunge of the tango after the fortissimo eighth-note accents. But the next tune, "Swing Vagabond" (aptly named), reminds listeners why Quadro Nuevo’s music is described as cinematic, as the piece suggests a Parisian street scene more than a Buenos Aires plaza (though it is intended to musically describe the experience of riding in the band’s bus). "Swing Vagabond’s" quarter-note-based rhythm is too straightforward, without emotionally charged swoops or unexpected accents, to be tango, though the instrumentation could slip into tango is so inclined.
Quadro Nuevo is so inclined to slip into tango on "Tango Jalousie," which was written not by an Argentine, but by a Dane, proving the worldwide influence of the tango, as well as its European connections. The quartet plays the tune with undercurrents of suspense, made especially effective by Francel’s use of bass clarinet to support the foundation of Quadro Nuevo’s unique arrangement. Too, "Tango Bitter Sweet," written by Francel, contains the smoulder of tango, the dance form’s enactment of the nuances of a relationship’s ups and downs intact as the moods change. In its structure and feel, "Tango Bitter Sweet" is the closest to the Argentine tangos that we know, though without the dramatic extremes and complexities of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos.
However, Quadro Nuevo’s intentions aren’t to strictly remain within the confines of the tango, and they defy expectations even as they remain true to their aesthetic from previous albums by mixing it up and pursuing the song forms that interest them. And so, they present Michel Legrand’s "The Windmills of Your Mind," not by forcing into a prescribed structure, but by having fun with it. A roller coaster ride of an arrangement, for sure, "The Windmills of Your Mind" undergoes several phases at accelerating speed as Wolf plays it with a technically flawless "wow" factor, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in harmony with the other three. "Milonga Tati," dedicated to the great French film maker Jacques Tati, is equally surprising, as bassist D.D. Lowka sings accompanied by acoustic guitar and Francel’s vibes in samba fashion. Then there is a tribute to Sidney Bechet with Quadro Nuevo’s haunting version of "Petite Fleur," the melody floating above Wolf’s beginning ostinato before the piece evolves at times into a beguine. Then there’s the bolero of "Et Maintenant," better known as "What Now My Love?" as the group takes advantage of its slow crescendo as mandolin lead is traded with accordion back-up of before Francel re-harmonizes the song when he comes in on tenor sax. And Aram Khatchaturian’s "Sabre Dance," played with verve and humor, not to mention with speed and technical facility, concludes Tango Bitter Sweet, not as a tango, but more as a wry Raymond Scott perspective upon a visual event.
And so Quadro Nuevo is all over the map, so to speak, and that’s where the group will remain: investigating and bringing to life the world’s music as they discover more of it and rework it according to their own instrumentation and style.