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Samuel Torres: The Interfuse of Percussion and Orchestration


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I have lived in New York City for eighteen years now, but I always feel like I just arrived yesterday because we are always moving forward.
—Samuel Torres
Samuel Torres is a percussionist extraordinaire. Samuel Torres is an exceptional composer. Samuel Torres is an astute arranger. Samuel Torres has vast skills as an orchestrator. All of those statements are valid responses to the question, who is Samuel Torres? The Colombian born artist, who now makes his home in New York City, has, as they say in the industry, "made a lot of noise" over the past few years. No, I don't mean banging and clanging around on a percussion kit. The phrase refers to doing something special and being noticed and respected by your peers.

Torres is equally gifted on all the musical skillsets and endeavors mentioned above. That isn't most common, but as our conversation revealed, he is a cut above on all fronts. He has worked with legends such as Tito Puente, Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, Arturo Sandoval, Richard Bona, and Poncho Sanchez. Whether as a sideman or as a leader, a composer or an arranger, Torres always rises to the top. This day, the artist that first knocked onto the scene with the seminal rhythms of his homeland colorfully exhibited through Skin Tones(One Soul, 2005), had just arrived back in New York City from Poland.

All About Jazz: Good afternoon Samuel. So, what brought you over to Poland? And don't say an airplane, you know that's not what I mean(laughing).

Samuel Torres: (laughing) I was asked to go over and play eight concerts with a guitarist led ensemble.

AAJ: This was jazz or classical?

ST: Jazz. European jazz with keyboards and more of an African rhythm.

AAJ: Leaping all the way back to the beginning, growing up in Bogota, Colombia, were you surrounded by music as far back as you can remember? Do you come from a musical family?

ST: Yes. I was surrounded by music. My grandfather had an orchestra. My uncles came to the United States over fifty years ago and have had great success. Juan Martinez is a drummer and my other uncle Edy Martinez is a keyboard player. I grew up listening to Ray Barretto and Tito Puente and all that great Latin music. My grandfather passed away when I was only about eight years old. It wasn't until I was maybe twelve or so that I started going through his record collection and just fell in love with the music. The sound, the rhythms, the congas, Tito Puente, I just fell in love with all of it and decided to become a musician.

AAJ: How did you go about that?

ST: Well, it took a little while. I first had to convince my mother that I was serious about becoming a musician. She knew how difficult it was to be successful. I finally convinced her that I had the talent and the passion to be a musician. I went to school and studied classical music.

AAJ: Based on your early jazz listening influence, did you study classical because it was the only option at the time, or did you choose to start with that?

ST: Mostly, yes, that the jazz was not so much available. Although I did manage to study some. I learned so much more really playing in the night clubs. I learned the basics of percussion but then to take that out into the clubs and just play and play some more is the only way to get better. I did continue with the classical studies in order to get my degree. I was given some very good advice to write ten classical compositions in order to find your own musical voice. This expanded my mind and creative abilities.

AAJ: The classical training then gave you more depth, more ways to connect and write jazz.

ST: It gave me more ways to express myself within my music.

AAJ: I have had many musicians tell me that it was their third of fourth instrument they played before they hit upon the one they knew was right for them. From what I am gathering, you knew it was percussion from the beginning.

ST: Yes. Very much so. I do love the piano. In school I played classical piano for compositions. But I have always had a special connection with drums, with congas, with timbales, percussion of all sorts.

AAJ: What music were you listening to at an early age? What music or musicians really inspired you?

ST: Ray Barretto for sure. Everything he was doing. His playing, his arrangements, the elements that he put into place. He was very ahead of his time. His music made a huge impact on me. He was a great bandleader, as well as a great player. His music evolved into social elements that hadn't been captured before.

AAJ: How long have you lived in New York City now? Is it everything you thought it would be?

ST: I have lived here for eighteen years now. Time goes by quickly. In New York City you always feel like you just arrived yesterday because you are always moving forward.

AAJ: Was the transition from Bogota to NYC difficult? Or asked another way, what are the major differences in lifestyle?

ST: The hardest part is the personal relationships that you have with people. In Colombia there is more time, so people get to know each other better. But also, they can get mixed up in your business. Whereas in New York City people are busy, they are moving on. They aren't watching or judging you. There is more freedom to just live your life. My dream was to come here and play the music that I love. I am very happy to be doing that. There is a big community of people here who just love to play, and it is very special to be a part of that. We play because we love the music. It is not about making money. It's about doing what we love.

AAJ: Early on you had a chance to play with Arturo Sandoval for a few years. Tell us about that experience.

ST: I have always been so grateful to Arturo. He saw me play in a small club in Miami. I was very young, very fresh. I had only been in the United States for six or seven months. He brought me into do a recording session. He was always supportive. He gave me an opportunity to work with him. He taught me many more of the elements of jazz and also to express yourself and connect with the audience. It's important to project the music the music that you are doing. Even after I moved to New York City Arturo was kind enough to fly me in for all his gigs so that I could keep playing for him.

AAJ: Playing with Arturo Sandoval put you on the map. It gave you great credibility.

ST: Oh yes it opened so many doors.

AAJ: Another artist you have played with and that is a big fan of yours, Leni Stern, pointed out to me that you are somewhat of an anomaly as a percussionist. She went so far as to say that she "had never heard of a drummer, composer, orchestrator before she met you." It's true that you tend to think of arrangers and orchestrators as pianists, horn players, or maybe guitarists. Is this something that you greatly pursued, or did it just come naturally to you?

ST: It was a very organic process. From the beginning I always felt passionate about the arrangements for the songs. I always enjoyed the melodies and the rhythms, of course, but the bigger picture has always appealed to me. When I start to compose, I combined all the elements I had learned in classical and jazz to find my own voice. I was still searching for that voice when I came to New York City. I just felt it when the time was right, in 2005, and began to do my own recordings and grow from there. So, yes it has come naturally to include the arrangements and orchestration. For me, it is part of the full package or vision.

AAJ: In reference to you, and your knowledge and sharing of Latin rhythms and influences, Leni titled a tune "Colombiano" on her record 3(Leni Stern Recordings, 2018) That's quite a tribute to you and your mastery of world rhythms.

ST: Yes, I really felt honored that Leni would do that for me. I didn't expect anything like that. I had explained to her a few things about Latin percussion and the way we do things, but I was very surprised that she would do that.

AAJ: A sweet gesture for sure and moreover the usage of those rhythms culminated in such a captivating tune.

ST: Yes, I haven't for a while now, but I used to go to the 55 Bar here in NYC and just jam with Leni and her band and her friends. We had so much fun. It is part of that community of jazz culture that I mentioned earlier.

AAJ: Yes, Leni had mentioned in the past that when the Colombiano walked in the door, people took notice. Then, of course, there are your own records as a leader. Last year you did a large project that paid homage to your classical roots. After composing and playing a lot of jazz, what inspired the classical direction?

ST: You are talking about Regreso(self-produced, 2019) yes?

AAJ: Yes.

ST: Well the story of Regreso is very interesting. I had a classical instructor back in Colombia, Ricardo Jaramillo, that is also a conductor. I had talked with him many times back then about wanting to do a project with the congas out in front of a full orchestra. Well, time when on, I moved to NYC, started playing jazz, etc. and have just had those arrangements packed away. So, years later he contacts me and says that he is now in a position that would allow him to do such a project and wondering if I still wanted to do it.

AAJ: It seems you jumped at the chance.

ST: Well, yes, I couldn't believe it was happening. So, I wrote a few more pieces to go along with what I already had and went to Colombia. We did a few performances with an orchestra and I also wrote arrangements for a smaller ensemble. This is the amazing part. There was no money to do a record like this, with a full orchestra of musicians. I didn't think it was going to happen, but the musicians all wanted to do the recording and be part of it. They all offered to do it for free. This was Nueva Filarmonia, a very prestigious orchestra in Colombia led by Ricardo Jaramillo. Everybody did it for the love of music. Everybody supported my music and I felt very blessed. It was a beautiful experience.

AAJ: And you ended up with a Latin Grammy for Best Classical Album of 2019. All your jazz records are distinctively different as well. It's clearly important to you to make a unique statement. A deep and dark departure was Forced Displacement(Zoho Music, 2015). Did you find this to be a rewarding experience in tackling both the complexities of the social elements involved and the depth of instrumentation?

ST: Yeah, writing this record was an amazing experience. It was very meaningful. Colombia was going through a very difficult time in the peace process. It was important that we were finally able to talk about it, try to put it behind us, and move forward. It is a very complex subject to get into. But it was an opportunity of expression in regard to very difficult times. The circumstances of war and violence needed to be expressed. Music was a way of doing that genuinely, deeply, in a more peaceful manner. There was a surfacing of pride speaking against the violence and culture of crime. "Drum's Pride( El Orgullo del Tambor)" for example, is important in understanding the culture. The drum has significance to all Colombians. This song, this record, utilized the drum as a unifying factor of pride in community and rebirth.

AAJ: Music has long been used to bind and heal communities from social dissonance. This ten-piece movement is dark and also deep instrumentally. The eight-piece collection of all-stars intensified the story with a fortitude of richness that matched the significance of the plight being addressed. You feel the strife through your music, which is a tribute to your compositional skills.

ST: Thank you. Yes, it was a new challenge to compose with a special theme of connectivity.

AAJ: Most recently you offered the antithesis with the jazz and dance party record Alegria (Blue Conga, 2019), a pure and jubilant celebration of life. It harkens back to Younde(Blue Conga, 2010), again a purely straight-ahead Latin jazz spin with a lot of content. It's also a voyage of expression with powerful bursts of energy.

ST: We had a great time with that one. Everyone really felt the music inside. That is a very important thing. We were playing and playing and playing at that time. A lot of gigs, a lot of fun.

AAJ: Yeah, well especially with the upbeat nature of those tunes. I would be remiss not to mention your contributions to Alejandro Sanz's Latin Grammy winning La Musica No Se Toca (Universal Music Spain S.L., 2012). Does that translate roughly to the music stays with us?

ST: You don't mess with the music.

AAJ: Oh, well, I like that a whole lot better!

ST: Pure and simple, yes. Don't mess with the music.

AAJ: It has all the elements of beauty and romance. It's also challenging, dynamic, and artful. I'm sure you are proud of the award, but perhaps more so of the rich musical accomplishment?

ST: Yes, I did arrangements with Ricardo. It's important for the music to have the recognition. There are so many different elements of percussion.

AAJ: Where can people come out and hear you play when you are at home in NYC?

ST: You know, I live in Queens. There is a club there that I play a lot every month called Terraza 7. I also have a salsa band. We play around the city a lot as well. This is for people to dance to. Sometimes I like to watch people dance and have a good time. So, this gives me an opportunity to play something different and enjoy in that way.

AAJ: Well, I have enjoyed talking with you. A real pleasure to speak with one who truly derives such joy from playing and from immersing themselves into the full spectrum of music.

ST: Thank you so much. Thank you for the interview. Very nice speaking with you.

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