Pre­lude to an af­ter­noon (and an evening) with Nestor Tor­res

to an af­ter­noon (and an evening) with NESTOR TOR­RES

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Richard Scheinin

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.

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