The noise from the Orchid Lounge stage sounds suspiciously like tuning in an orchestra pit. On the dance floor, a handful of couples practice their steps. One graying twosome struggles in vain to stay in synch, their feet unable to cooperate with their brains. The woman is done up in a fancy floral-print dress. She chatters persistently in her partner's ear as he leads her clumsily around the outer boundary of the generous dance area. Indeed, they need every inch of space they can get.
Another older pair nearby seems to have it down, the man dressed in an ivory-white, '70s leisure suit, his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum to reveal an ornate gold cross hanging from a thick gold chain around his neck. Across the floor, a dark-haired dance instructor in a jet-black body suit has her way with a strait-laced business type, exhibiting the firm patience of a teacher intent on getting her student up to snuff in a hurry. Almost careening into them, a teenage duo in jeans and T-shirts attempts one of the world's most perplexing dance forms while wearing basketball sneakers.
For the first 15 minutes or so, there is no soundtrack to this silly carnival of motion. Aside from the random, eerie sounds of bows across strings and piano keys tinkling, the dancers are moving about in silence as the less brave souls sitting at tables look on. Then, discreetly, the members of Tosca take their places on stage, most dressed conservatively so as not to distract from the music. On the far-left corner of the stage, cigarette smoke wafts from a music stand that doubles as an ashtray holder. The stand belongs to Glover Gill, the band's chain-smoking commandant.
Sticking out like a biker at a debutante ball, Gill -- with his low-top Chuck Taylors, shorts and a short-sleeve work shirt -- hardly looks the part of a dance-band leader. Nonetheless, the River Oaks native slips his accordion over his skinny, tattooed arms and shoulders, quietly announces the group's presence and gives his colleagues the subtle signal.
The tango commences.
Most nights, the Orchid Lounge is ground zero for the swing craze in Houston. But on Wednesdays, the West University club leads a lusty double life, thanks to Tosca. The brainchild of former 8 1/2 Souvenirs pianist/accordionist/body-art mascot Gill, the Austin septet stands in firm defiance of a tired trend that ought to be running its course by now.
"If I never hear the word 'swing' again, it'll be too soon," says Gill, a onetime University of St. Thomas student and alumnus of the local '70s fusion band One Hand Clapping. "I started a swing band almost seven years ago, and it's just now catching on. And the sad thing about that is, now there are many, many, many bad imitations popping up all across the country. The entire pop culture is jumping on the bandwagon. I'm surprised that there's not a new sport utility vehicle called 'Swing.' The only real thing left, in my opinion, is the Royal Crown Revue, the Naughty Ones and 8 1/2 Souvenirs."
But the sad fact is, the success of the real item is more or less governed these days by a feckless fad spawned by inferiors. And while Gill has nothing but goodwill for his ex-mates in the Souvenirs, you get the impression that he could smell death in the air. In breaking from the Austin group just as its major-label life was beginning, Gill had made an anti-swing statement of sorts. He also may have saved his ass from an uncertain future amongst the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies and other pop-up poseurs of the genre. Really, though, it's simpler than that: Gill found a fetish, one that he couldn't fulfill at any great length with the Souvenirs. So the only solution was to find satisfaction on his own.
"Tango does not swing at all," says Gill bluntly.
And sure enough, swing and tango couldn't be any less compatible. Where the former is giddy and rambunctious, the latter is stern and deliberate; where swing's sexual implications are teasing and essentially harmless, tango's brand of fornicative innuendo is less flirtatious and more forthright. The best tango dancers are at once arousingly suggestive and coldly statuesque, their facial expressions vacant, their movements vaguely mechanized as their tightly joined bodies glide about the floor as if it were covered in a sheet of fresh ice.
Simply put, tango doesn't mess around. The dance form -- and the music that evolved around it -- is a product of Argentina, bred in the late-19th-century brothels of Buenos Aires's blighted suburbs. Nurtured by an environment of poverty and violence, the tango is actually a mutation of the Cuban-derived milonga, transformed by gestures that simulated knife fights and erotic stimulation. The moves that form its foundation include the corte (sudden halt), the quebrada (twist) and the refalada (glide).
By the 1920s, tango and its once-risque milieu were becoming popularized and romanticized; the traditional guitar/violin/flute instrumentation expanded to include bandoneon (a type of German accordion) and larger string sections. The '40s saw the proliferation of full-scale tango orchestras in Buenos Aires. Through the latter part of this century, as the European and American dance communities maintain a cultish, decidedly watered-down infatuation with tango culture, South American visionaries such as Anibal Troilo, Roberto Firpo and Astor Piazzolla continued to update and test the limits of the music.
In fact, it was the work of Piazzolla that first got Gill thinking.
"When I was playing with 8 1/2 Souvenirs, I wrote a rumba for them -- which is on their second record, Souvonica -- entitled 'Tango Lunatico,' " says Gill. "Then a friend of mine here in Austin gave me an Astor Piazzolla CD, and I went absolutely ape. I didn't listen to anything else for a week or two; it was ridiculous."
Says Gill of Piazzolla, "He revolutionized tango, adding modern harmony and rhythms and jazz bass lines. We're talking about a tradition here [more than a century] old, and he took it up to three levels higher. Some of the traditionalists thought it was too radical, and they didn't like it."
Gill certainly did, and he took to tango like a kid to a new chemistry set. When the rest of the Souvenirs noticed that Gill's sideline interest was becoming a full-time obsession, they politely suggested that he find other play companions. "I presented one of my tangos to the Souvenirs, and they were so challenged by it that it just never happened," he recalls. "The singer, Juliana Sheffield, said, 'Glover, you need five of you to pull this off.' "
Glover took the hint.
Taking his inspiration from Piazzolla's interpretation of tango's future, Gill began acquiring converts to his cause. He recruited Luis Guerra, bassist for offbeat Austin outfit Ta Mere. The rest of the group he found through the University of Texas's School of Music, feeding them crucial bits of tango history as he went along. The current lineup includes pianist Jeanine Attaway, cellist Sara Nelson, viola player Ames Asbell and violinists Leigh Mahoney and Tom Sender. In Sender, Gill also found an eager composer, and the two of them went to work honing the material that would inevitably make up the bulk of La Furia del Tango, Tosca's debut CD.
In an odd twist that is vintage Gill, he took the name "Tosca" from another genre completely. "It's from the Puccini opera by the same title," he says. "Tosca was the heroine of the opera. Everybody dies in the end; it's very sad."
With his new band solidified, Gill parted ways with 8 1/2 Souvenirs amicably in March of this year, just weeks before RCA reissued the Souvenirs' indie debut, Happy Feet. Around that time, La Furia del Tango was released on Tosca's own Nois Records. ("No bar code; no e-mail; no web site," it drolly states on the disc's back cover.) In the end, eight of La Furia's 12 tracks would be Gill's, the album filled out by a single contribution from Sender (the enchanting "El Sol Sale"), a Gill arrangement of a piece by Christian Fernandez ("Tango") and a Tosca rendition of Piazzolla's incendiary "Four, for Tango."
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Overall, Gill shows considerable first-time flair in his attempts to move tango off the dance floor and into the living room. His structures are just inventive enough, his melodies contemporary yet familiar enough, the group's execution moving enough to seal La Furia's keeper status. It's more than just a conversation piece; it's a fun and moving listen.
Even so, the album was never meant to be anything but a well-applied primer for tango's full-body experience. Currently, Tosca has regular slots at three Austin venues, including the Continental Club. And its weekly shows at the Orchid Lounge in Houston are expected to continue indefinitely.
"You get your hard-core tango fanatics; you get your curiosity-seekers of all ages," says Gill of Tosca's broad audience. "Occasionally, a regular of any bar will accidentally trip across us and either love us or hate us. If they love us, then they're back every week. You even get your old-school tango fanatics who have the same opinion of us as some traditionalists had of Piazzolla. But they keep coming back anyway, because we're the only tango orchestra in the state."
Tosca performs Wednesdays in November at the Orchid Lounge, 2415 Dunstan. Showtime is 10 p.m. Cover is $5. Free tango lessons from 9 to 10 p.m. For info, call 524-0228.