E l Señor del Tango was searching for something in particular. We know this because of what and how he recorded. Did he find it?
In his mind, probably not exactly, for that feeling goes with the territory when you are a perfectionist. But to his fans he definitely found something special. In at least the last years of his working life when he made three dozen sparkling renditions of his favourite songs - all of which have their own special place in the hearts of dancers and set his place in the pantheon.
A private man who created a great calm and openness in his music, the masterful Cayetano Carlos Di Sarli.
An accident while working in his father's gun store costs him an eye when 13. The teen tours in a group for a few months, then settles in for a two year stint playing for silent movies in a cinema owned by a family friend. Here, he hones multiple skills and becomes a wickedly great pianist; adept at entertaining the public by manipulating their emotions in harmony with the films' storylines.
He's my favourite tango pianist. So is Biagi. Can't choose! But Carlos on the keyboard is breath-taking. While Biagi held back on "fierce," Carlos wrote the book on how to play piano like you always want to hear it in all its majesty and glory - thinder on the bottom supporting dazzle on top. With taste, always. It's their amazing touch and boogie which makes me admire them so much.
(The cinema experience helps keep him alive financially all through the 1940s when he doesn't have a record contract. The only recording he is able to do is anonymously creating backing music for a few films. One of the great tragedies of tango: 10 lost years of no Di Sarli records. Such an astounding loss of expression would tend to make young man with things to do a touch angry at the business world, perhaps).
He forms his first group in 1919, working in hometown Bahía Blanca and touring the provinces, before then moving to Buenos Aires with his non-musician brother in 1924. His first job is for one of my favourite musicians and composers, the wonderful Anselmo Aieta (later lead fue for Donato).
In 1926 Carlos joins his hero Osvaldo Fresedo's orquesta. They became life-long friends and Carlos always makes it clear Osvaldo is his great inspiration.
Viejo milonguero, which Di Sarli composes around 1927-28 is dedicated to Fresedo. Now marks the beginning of his launch as a leader in B.A. with a sexteto. He plays on the radio and begins recording, making 48 tracks between November 1928 and August 1931. He's a machine at output. (The picture shows he is only covering one eye at this time. Dealing with his eye problem is a fact of life, but it seems to bother some other people. Entirely unfair).
Carlos Di Sarli Sexteto, 1930 - Flora (singer: Ernesto Fama)
In his late 20s Carlos has already defined his personal arranging style. Along with his bold and sexy accents in rhythm, he uses the violins in a unique way. With only 2 bandos, he has always sought to add more bite by having his 2 violins play crisp, pizzicato, bando-like pulses to strengthen the beat when they aren't playing melody. This idea will always be part of his signature sound.
Many times I've put on one of these first early recordings and asked people who know tango pretty well, "what orquesta is this"? Blank expressions. As soon as I say Di Sarli you can see the light go on. Of course! "I didn't know he was recording in the 20s" is a usual comment. Really lovely stuff, these recordings.
He won't make records between the end of 1930 and the end of 1939. For the mystery of what happens, never satisfactorily explained in tango lore, I refer to Wikipedia's thin but credible account:
"In 1930, during a performance in the café El Germinal, Di Sarli had an argument with one of the café's owners who did not understand that he wore dark glasses on stage for medical reasons because of his accident at age 13. Di Sarli promptly moved with his orchestra to Bahía Blanca, where he performed at the La Central club. In 1934, for unclear reasons, Di Sarli left the orchestra and moved to Rosario in Santa Fe province where he joined a trio with the bandoneón player Juan Cambareri. His sextet continued to play without him, later changing its name to Orquesta Novel due to their performances at the club Novelty. At the request of the orchestra's members in 1935, Di Sarli rejoined the band temporarily to replace the pianist who was ill at the time."
One can't help but ponder: Was he tired of and disgusted by how things work in the big city and / or the music business? Suffering from a broken heart? Perhaps just unsure it was worth the effort? No way of knowing. There is only one other giant figure in tango who also had periods of mystery about his life leaving puzzling questions as yet unanswered: Gardel.
Some of the biggest orquesta leaders ran multiple orquestas under their name; Fresedo at one time had seven and Carlos took care of one of them for a time. It provided income.
Fortunately for us, things in his personal life get resolved to the extent that he eventually comes back and gets to work. Musically, it will take him three years to get comfortably settled in the manner one would hope for a great Artist. Once again, onward and upward ...
In late 1938, Carlos reorganizes his orchestra and in January 1939 gets a slot on Radio El Mundo. Now has has 3 violins, 3 bandos and bass to accompany his piano. After finding Roberto Rufino, who was 16 years old at the time Carlos gets a record deal with RCA. On December 11, 1939, they record the tangos Corazón (composed by Carlos) and Retirao. He's back!
For an idea of how the tango music world has changed during his long recording sabbatical, see what Biagi and D'Arienzo have wrought with their whirlwind since 1935.
Carlos Di Sarli Orquesta, 1939 - Corazón (singer: Roberto Rufino)
While compelling listening music it must be said that this come-back year is a bit disconcerting for one reason: the records are too fast for comfortable dancing. In production terms, wound up too tight. I can picture RCA's guys in the studio pushing him to make it urgent like Biagi did with D'Arienzo. Probably against Carlos' better judgment. Well, what else could he do in the circumstances but seem amenable? He wasn't in a position to argue at this point.
All of the dozen record sides in 1940 would have been so much more loved if they had been less breathless, if I may say. They certainly are not the Di Sarli we crave (one wouldn't use these for teaching beginners)! But from 1941 on, one can hear Carlos taking control again and slowing down.
One thing is for sure: they were successful enough for Carlos to do what HE wants to do starting in '41. Gradually from now on, his music will keep feeling slower and slower until in the mid-50s he arrives back at where he was in 1929! And that feels good to dancers.
There is SO much great Di Sarli music in the 40s - yet a lot of it doesn't get heard, isn't popularly known today. Two reasons: obviously, there is only so much air-time in milongas and reaching for the 50s cuts to please dancers is the smart thing to do. But really, most people just don't have sufficiently good quality of the 40s work to be inclined to play it. It was beautifully recorded. It has been distributed in terrible sonic shape.
Producer Carlos adds Alberto Podestá and Jorge Durán to go with Rufino and all deliver outstanding performances. They are so different they really allow Carlos to range wide.They can often knock your socks off. And the songs themselves and instrumentation are just beautiful. I have a nightmare in the back of my mind that I won't ever be able to improve on my improvements; I'm only as good as my source material. AND - I'm very careful not to do too much in search of some kind of audio geek's "perfection;" you can destroy music in that way. There is a line I won't cross if it starts sounding unnatural. And although I have tricks to take away the perception of distortion, it's not possible to fully remove it once there.
But, any advance is something compared to what has come down to us. And there is a wonderful improvement one wouldn't expect when your whole tanda is made of the restorations. That's why they really jump out in a milonga: the cumulative effect adds so much value.
Want some chills? Dig this:
Carlos Di Sarli Orquesta, 1944 - Nada (singer: Alberto Podestá)
One last personal note about Corazón: when I began restoration my one desire was to see if I could make Di Sarli's 1940s records sound better because RCA really screwed them up after the Masters went to the vaults. None of them sound as good technically as his '29-'31 material. I spent more time than I care to mention on that first single because of the challenge to find out what could be done; then went back and worked on it more because I wasn't satisfied. It was my big learning experience at the beginning. I loved the song, and hated the sound and all the noise. The amount of emotional investment in those songs, from my love for Di Sarli and his music, remains stark in my memory. I restore music because I wanted to hear Di Sarli like it should sound. At that point, I kept going because I had the same desire to clean the wonderful Biagi records. After getting somewhere, I couldn't stop. I found that all the tango records that sound thin and noisy were actually beautifully recorded in the studio. A fantastic revelation!
What about the man - the leader of men, the employer of extaordinarily sensitive and experienced musicians?
The old story one hears from people who say they know a lot is that Carlos was exasperating to work for; he was such a perfectionist that three times (1931, 48 and 56) his entire orchestra are said to have walked-out on him. I personally haven't been able to find any evidence to back that up. Already we've seen that did NOT happen in 1931. When I've looked at those dates, they coincide with a record company being idiotic and a contract ends. Simple. The next time you hear some dj tell you that "musicians hated him" ...
Interesting to note, as well, that all of his singers eagerly came back to record with him in later years. If you were a singer, wouldn't YOU want him elevating your every breath and note to the musical stratosphere? And it's hard to imagine any of his musicians not forever being proud of saying, I played with Di Sarli. That made you a celebrity.
And as we shall see, some of the most brilliant tango musicians around, who had known him for many years, were with him on his last sessions.
If any musician walked like a panther, it could only have been Carlos Di Sarli.
His originality is breath-taking; his beat so sexy.
His walking music, with almost boogie-woogie-ish fills as early as 1928, beckon us to the dance floor, to his special embrace opportunity.
To me, Di Sarli is to tango like what Duke Ellington is to American popular music. They both explored sophisticated and complex simplicity - and encouraged every sensual inclination.
When I want to impress a musician who knows nothing about Tango, I will play them the milonga "Con Alma Y Vida" and ask the person to isolate the piano. It's unbelievable. Di Sarli was a wizard on the keyboard, and his arrangements magical.
Many teachers around the world use Di Sarli's later music for teaching. It is an excellent assist for beginners who often have trouble hearing "the beat" of tango until they get acclimatized. Carlos takes your hand and moves with you, making it so simple to understand.
It is surely a mark of his mastery that, although perhaps his recordings on the whole are probably heard more frequently than any other orchestra (because of teaching and practice use on the classic slow instrumentals plus mandatory milonga play), they last and last and never lose power and their inspiring sensuality. Testament to inspired genius.
He was also another victim of the outrageous planned fire that swept away the warehouse containing his, and other greats' precious original master recordings. Consumers' scratchy 78's became the only source material. Record companies have routinely issued atrocious reproductions of his originals. Generations have never heard what he really sounded like. That's why I'm on the restoration odyssey.
Aside: Distressing to note that when he returned to RCA for his final recordings in 1958 ten years after leaving them in disgust (two more years of no recording), he was again sabotaged by inferior engineering. The songs are great and Indio manso, Una fija, Hasta siempre amor, etc. are loved favs today. But the sound is constricted, over-modulated and not pleasing. The bass in particular is not right at all. Criminal reproduction. How to explain? Tape recording was new then and the engineers could have been unfamiliar with the process. Also could have been a new studio not yet properly tuned. (You had the same thing happen when Color Tango opened their studio. On the first album with all their hits, the bass REALLY got away from them and you have to roll off a lot of bass to not sound like an idiot when you play that music in a milonga).
On those last recordings Carlos was seriously ill. You can't tell from his playing! He also had wonderful musicans of note: my hero, violinist Elvino Vardaro, whom we first met when he formed a duo with teenager Osvaldo Pugliese in the 20s, was in OTV, etc. and was at the time playing with Piazzolla. Also the great José Libertella and Julián Plaza.
It's a blessing Carlos passed before RCA burned all his original Masters. But I suppose he wouldn't have been surpeised after all he'd been through with record company types.
Carlos Di Sarli Orquesta, 1955 - Corazón (singer: Mario Pomar)
Carlos recorded several songs multiple times, looking for ... that something. For this reason alone, as a record producer myself I find him so interesting. I listen to his lovely recordings trying to discern what he didn't like about them; then listen to his next version of the same song to hear how he changed it. I swear I'm his most faithful student. I've cleaned more than 300 of his tracks - each one taking hours. More than a few, many hours. A number I haven't offered to others because I know he wouldn't want me to. (Well, I know he probably wants to hold it all back and re-record it all over again! I'm not satisfied either, and would love him to come and start again. Heh, heh. So I'll keep searching for better source material on all his work till I can work no more. This is how I feel about all the great tango music. But it was Di Sarli who first made me want to try to do whatever I could - IF I could - to right the wrongs of his record companies.
When I DJ, I delight in playing some of his wonderful famous songs in versions he recorded in the late 40s and early 50s in place of the same song versions from later in the 50s which are so well-known. They have a touch more impetus and are really refreshing; with the added spice of also calling for different movement from the dancers. Delicious, engaging suprises to keep dancers on their toes!
Don Carlos Di Sarli is the epitomy of taste, elegance and sensuality. He walks with distinction amongst the gods of tango, a restless panther ever on the quest, while calmly taking us temporarily Earth-bound mortals by the hand and along on the journey ...