Prelude to an afternoon (and an evening) with Nestor Torres
to an afternoon (and an evening) with NESTOR TORRES
Nestor Torres is describing his crazed weekend routine as a music student in Boston during the late 1970s: Wake up at 6 a.m. on Friday, practice for 2.5 hours, go to class, grab his flute, and jump on the Amtrak train to New York. In Manhattan, Torres — barely into his twenties — was making inroads in the burgeoning salsa and Latin jazz scenes and would perform in short order with Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and other royalty. In the meantime, he was playing with the city’s best charanga bands, honing his skills as an improviser within that traditional form of Cuban dance music. “There was this place at 50th Street and Third Avenue,” he recalled, “where we would play Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Then I’d catch the 3:10 a.m. train from Penn Station to Boston and start all over again.”
Recently arrived from his native Puerto Rico and still getting his English up to speed, Torres was back then immersed in classical studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, learning repertory by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Berio. Simultaneously, he was building his skills as a jazz flutist, studying the music of Eric Dolphy and Herbie Mann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and most notably, Hubert Laws, whose career was at its zenith in the 1970s. Laws — who arranged and improvised his way through works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach, and Faure on his 1971 album Rite of Spring — became the North Star for Torres: “He changed my life. His classical training is impeccable: his phrasing and sound, the immaculate technique. Oh, I understood in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to aspire to the highest level, that I was going to have to master classical music even as I performed in all these other musical worlds.”
You could draw a straight line between that flash of understanding and Torres’ two upcoming concerts in Santa Fe, both presented by the Santa Fe Symphony. He will headline a Latin jazz concert (Thursday, Oct. 18) with the band known as Pikante! It’s a sextet led by Mariano Morales, the Puerto Rican-born pianist, violinist, and composer whose penchant for eclecticism resembles that of Torres. In fact, Morales has composed a concerto for flute and orchestra especially for Torres, who will perform as soloist in the work’s New Mexico premiere (Sunday, Oct. 14). Syncopated in a salsa-meets-jazz manner, the concerto bridges classical and jazz harmonies, showcases Torres with a big cadenza — and then sets him loose as an improviser while the orchestra breaks into a bomba rhythm that carries the piece to its conclusion. The bomba isa homegrown Puerto Rican musical form, having originated in the 18th century among slaves working the sugar cane fields in Mayaguez, where Torres was raised.
The concerto is to be conducted by Guillermo Figueroa, the Santa Fe Symphony’s principal conductor, who first heard Torres play four years ago in Miami. (Both teach in Florida conservatories.) Descended from a Puerto Rican musical dynasty — as is Morales, who lives in Albuquerque — Figueroa conceived the idea for the new concerto and arranged the match between the composer and the flutist. Torres, he said, “has a gift of something else. He adapts his sound to whatever the music demands: incredibly silky and soft while playing a beautiful melody, but then biting and hard when he rips into a salsa riff. He can imitate extreme
high sounds, like a piccolo from a charanga band, or he can play the most gorgeous Debussy, like nobody else.”
Torres traces his adaptability to early listening experiences. His greataunt Ruth Fernández was a renowned contralto, known throughout the island as “el alma de Puerto Rico hecha canción” — “the soul of Puerto Rico in song.” His mother was an opera fan, while his father favored albums by Dave Brubeck, Mongo Santamaria, Stan Getz, and Nat King Cole.
Percussion was a childhood passion: “I grew up banging on pots and pans with my cousins,” said Torres, who remembers the Christmas when “Santa Claus brought me a Ludwig drum set. And being the son of a musician” — his father, also named Nestor Torres, played piano and vibraphone — “I was constantly surrounded by all kinds of instruments: trumpets, trombones, basses, saxophones. Nothing really hit me. But then one day at school, we were filling out application forms for whatever instrument we wanted to play. I looked up and saw the photo of a flute, and, oh, it triggered memories of when the symphony came to my hometown playing Peter and the Wolf. I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
At twelve years old, “It took at least five years before I could play anything decent,” he claimed. In 1973, at age sixteen, he attended a summer course at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 1975, his family moved to New York: His father, also a cameraman and sound technician, got a job with NBC and worked on the “Today” show.
Torres attended conservatories in Manhattan and Boston over the next few years, and he was playing everywhere. By the early ’80s, he was a regular at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, performing with Puente, Barretto, Larry Harlow, and Hector Lavoe. He was becoming a star, but he also had grown disillusioned with what he described as New York’s “harsh environment. Because the lifestyle of the music was a lot of partying and drugs, and this to me was kind of shocking.”
He moved to Miami. In 1989, he made his major-label record debut — and in 1990, he was in a boating accident, fracturing 18 ribs, breaking his collarbone, and suffering a collapsed lung. Laid up for months, he credits his recovery to the “compassion, patience, and resilience of the nurses, who were working 8 to 12 hours a day and not getting any credit. I saw that, and that’s when the intent of my music changed. I decided that music must have a healing quality — that my mission wasn’t to impress with virtuosity, but to touch people’s lives. And I’m fairly comfortable saying that that has been the key to my success.”
Torres recently released two albums. On one ( Jazz Flute Traditions), he honors his heroes — Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Hubert Laws, and others — by playing their music. On the other (Del Caribe, Soy! Latin
American Flute Music), he performs contemporary classical works by Cuban-born composer Tania Leon and Uruguayan-born composer Miguel del Águila — they composed the pieces especially for Torres. In June, he performed at a smooth jazz festival in San Diego. This fall, he played
charanga tunes at a festival in Columbia. Why be pigeonholed? “The flute is such a ubiquitous instrument in all cultures — in classical music, in jazz, in world music,” he observed. “And I am allowing myself to explore all of it, to open doors so my listeners can walk through and discover these other worlds of possibilities. Because there is music that is meant to be consumed as you would consume soda or shoes,” he said. “But then there is true art, and I find that human beings know when they’re being told the truth.”
Torres can imitate extreme high sounds, like a piccolo from a charanga band, or he can play the most gorgeous Debussy, like nobody else.