When the imposing talents of one of today’s most versatile Latin jazz artists meld with the organic richness of some of the world’s greatest cultural melting pots, the results are guaranteed to be as fresh and virtuosic as they are revealing and magical. That’s what transpires on Yaoundé, the new release by Samuel Torres. The session confirms that this multitalented Colombian musician’s rapidly evolving prowess as a composer has come to rival his international acclaim as one of the best percussionists of his generation.
Torres was born September 4, 1976 in Colombia’s bustling capital city of Bogotá and was nurtured in this culturally sophisticated metropolis where jazz and classical music share the stage with salsa and an infinite variety of Colombian folkloric idioms. His earliest exposure to music came at home, thanks to an extended family of musicians and ready access to a wealth of Colombian music genres, from the infectious rhythms of the cumbia and vallenato to styles which reflect a range of African, indigenous and European influences, including the porro, bambuco and pasillo.
A major inspiration was Edy Martinez, an uncle who had risen to fame in the New York City salsa scene in the early 1970s as a pianist and arranger in conga player Ray Barretto’s popular conjunto. Torres further cites Barretto as a primary influence and credits exposure to two seminal Barretto albums that featured his uncle, the early Latin jazz classic The Other Road and the salsa powerhouse Indestructible, as helping to spur his interest in becoming a musician.
By the age of 12, Torres was performing with various Bogotá ensembles, developing techniques that allowed him to quickly adapt to the demands of jazz, pop music and salsa. A classically trained percussionist, he earned a degree in Music Composition from Bogotá’s esteemed Universidad Javeriana. Before departing for the U.S. in 1999, the resourceful young artist had become an established figure on Colombia’s hectic music scene, backing leading Colombian performers while serving as an arranger and music director for his country’s highly regarded telenovelas (TV soap operas) and films.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., his career took a dramatic turn when he was tapped by famed Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to join his group. Torres spent four years touring the world and recording with the jazz great, polishing his ever-expanding talents while attracting the attention of a long list of renowned artists with whom he would eventually collaborate. Over time, he would perform with a veritable “who’s who” of the jazz, Latin pop and salsa world, including such luminaries as Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Don Byron, Claudio Roditi, Richard Bona, Poncho Sanchez, Lila Downs, Marc Anthony, Thalía, and his country’s own international superstar, Shakira. His talents have also been featured in concerts with the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Nashville Symphony and at a host of music festivals around the world.
Rounding out the Colombian musician’s résumé are his show-stopping performance for the 2000 edition of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for Hand Percussion, where he placed second, and his association with Latin Percussion, Inc., for whom he produced the DVD Drum Solos Revisited. Martin Cohen, the founder of LP who has collaborated with most of the Latin world’s finest percussionists over the past four decades, lauds Torres as the most talented arranger and producer he has encountered in over 25 years.
In 2006, Torres released Skin Tones, his debut recording as a leader and an album that quickly solidified his reputation as one of the most creative percussionists in Latin jazz today. The effort was trumpeted by JazzTimes magazine as “at once intelligent, sophisticated and explosive.”
Now comes Yaoundé, the much anticipated follow-up session. The recording is even more stylistically adventurous than its predecessor, with 13 invigorating tracks that draw from the seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of Colombian folkloric traditions Torres has cultivated as well as African sonorities and shadings of funk and avant-garde jazz.
As he did on Skin Tones, Torres surrounds himself with a large cast of stellar musicians who bring their strongly individualistic perspectives to the group sound. Among the headliners whose talents make Yaoundé so memorable are woodwind artists Anat Cohen and Joel Frahm, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, pianist Manuel Valera, bassist John Benitez, timbalero Ralph Irizarry, drummer Ernesto Simpson, vocalist Sofía Rei Koutsovitis and tiple (12-string Colombian guitar) player Andrés García.
“The combinations of these diverse musicians, I strongly believe, give the flavor of what I was trying to get on Yaoundé,” Torres explains. “The album features a lot of Colombian music, but it comes with a vision from New York and the spirit of West Africa. The group includes Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jewish, Colombian and other South American musicians, but they are players who are really well versed in both jazz and Latin music.”
Although now a seasoned artist in his mid 30s, Torres still boasts the same inquisitive personality that prompted his early interest in music as a young boy in Bogotá. A 2005 trip to Africa with guitarist Richard Bona sparked an interest in African music and its connection to many of his homeland’s rhythms. It also unleashed a flood of creative energy that led directly to the creation of his new album, Yaoundé. “My trip to Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, was very emotional,” he recalls of his visit to Africa. “At that moment, I began a new period in my life. The song ‘Yaoundé’ was the first tune that I wrote after the experience, and out of that compositional process the rest of songs came together.”
His exposure to African music at its source provided Torres with a new appreciation of how some of the styles of his native Colombia had evolved. He discovered, for instance, the striking similarity between the currulao, a style from Colombia’s Pacific coast region, and the balafon music of Cameroon. “Initially, I didn’t have the intention to do a Colombian jazz album, but as time went on, I felt the need to do it in certain styles. Maybe I was in search of my own identity, or perhaps it was a desire to explore the African influence in Colombian music. It also came from my own perspective of living in New York, of traveling all around, and of loving Latin jazz, salsa, and Cuban and African music and realizing how all of these styles can interact.”
Although his command of percussion techniques is astounding, what makes Samuel Torres stand out from the crowd are his fully developed skills as a composer and arranger. “Since I began playing Latin percussion, I felt there was a pervading bad attitude about percussionists,“ he comments. “People would laugh and say, ‘There are musicians, and then are conga players.’ One of the things that I wanted to do in my career was to help change that incorrect impression, and I believe that composition is one way to do that. Composition is a big tool to help understand music. It enables you to express many feelings that might be difficult to communicate as a player.”
As he persuasively demonstrates on Yaoundé, Samuel Torres transcends the conventional definition of a percussionist. He’s a fully developed musician in the true meaning of the word -- an artist who passionately follows his intuitions, ever broadening his horizons while further honing his wide-ranging, world class skills.