|Nestor Torres Jazz Flute Traditions|
I have always enjoyed listening to jazz flute, so much so that in 2016 I wrote an article where I documented some twenty-five performances that I felt were particularly noteworthy of the genre. You can link to that article here. The list was never intended to be all inclusive, just my personal compilation of some great jazz played on flute. I still feel the list represents a good cross-section of some of the best jazz artists on the instrument. But once you pull on a thread you never know where it may take you, and so when I recently received flautist Nestor Torres’ latest Jazz Flute Traditions it was like I was revisitng a history lesson in jazz flute.
Torres is a virtuoso whose work I had been previously unaware of. Originally from the island of Puerto Rico, he and his family emigrated to New York in 1975 when Torres was eighteen-years old. He studied classical and jazz flute at the Mannes School of Music in New York as well as at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1981, he moved to Miami where he continues to reside. He was well on his musical path, gaining wider popularity after his debut album, Morning Ride, quickly rose on the Billboard charts. Then tragedy struck in 1991. Torres was injured in a boating accident that left the flautist with multiple broken ribs, a shattered clavicle and a collapsed lung. After a long and tedious recovery that found him divorced and near destitute, he discovered solace in the spiritual practice of Nicherin Buddhism and made his way back to the music. Torres, a four-time Latin Grammy nominee and one-time Latin Grammy winner, has been sometimes pigeonholed in the smooth jazz category. But having played with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Arturo Sandoval and Tito Puente to name a few, his credentials as a bona fide jazz artist are secure and have only been reinforced with this latest album Jazz Flute Traditions.
Recorded live at Miami’s WDNA-FM Studios, Torres is joined by a superb core rhythm section of Silvano Monasterios on piano, Jamie Ousley on bass, Michael Piolet on drums and Jose Gregorio on percussion. Guest artists Ian Munoz on alto saxophone, Miguel Russel on percussion and Marcus Grant on drums are also heard on a few selections.
Torres demonstrates his total understanding of the jazz flute tradition with his thoughtful selection of some of the genre’s most influential repertoire on this new album. He starts the program with Moe Koffman’s “Swingin’ Shepherds Blues” made famous by the Canadian flautist back in 1949. Torres giving Koffman’s early treatment a little more punch and a little hum, easily showing his facility at a multiplicity of styles.
The flautist follows with the Herbie Mann classic “Memphis Underground” from Mann’s 1969 album of the same name. The group takes the audience on this pulsing drive, back to the late-sixties and the cool, hip sound Mann famously created. Torres evokes the chilled funk this song demands with equal aplomb.
One of the more interesting time travels on this album is Torres’ re-creation of the great flautist and band leader Esy Morales’ composition “Jungle Fantasy” from 1948. With its ostinato bass line, driving percussion and haunting flute lines, Torres plays tis one with wild abandon. Monasterios is a marvelously percussive pianist who shines on this one. The music just cooks and you can feel the audience bouncing in their seats.
Classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Adagio from Concierto De Aranjuez” was popularized by the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain released in 1960. It also became a vehicle of jazz flute interpretation when the pianist Chick Corea used it as a lead into his composition "Spain" from his Light as a Feather album from 1973. On that album, multi-instrumentalist Joe Farrell created an enduring jazz flute performance for the ages. Torres honors that performance with his own thrilling take on this masterful composition. Torres uses elements of his classical training to create a poignant intro before unleashing his Latin roots driven solo work on "Spain", dancing over Corea’s nimble lines with the grace of a gazelle. Ousley’s bass lines echo resoundingly and Monasterios is again propulsive.
No flute complilation would be complete without acknowledging the pioneering approach of the great Yuseff Lateef. Torres captures the maestro’s spiritual, eastern-inspired tone. With his masterful control, he is able to evoke a sense of profound beauty and peaceful reverence that Lateef surely would have appreciated.
One of the most controversial flute players of his time was the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk who often accentuated his playing with breathy accents and vocal hums. Torres does justice to Kirk’s raspy technique on the quirky “Serenade to a Cuckoo.” The version features Ousley’s walking bass lines and a nice alto solo by Ian Munoz.
Composer Luciano Berio and multi-instrumentalist/composer Eric Dolphy among others were inspired to write homages to the virtuoso Italian classical flautist Severino Gazzeloni. In artfully combining Berio’s “Sequenza” with Dolphy’s “Gazzelloni” Torres proves just how adept a student of the jazz flute he is. Torres classical chops are intact as he navigates Berio’s passages with skill and sensitivity, but he is just as adept at the more Avant-guarde approach that Dolphy employed during his Out to Lunch period. The ability of Torres to switch styles so seamlessly is a testament to the man's virtuosity.
“Cute” is a Neal Hefti composition written for Frank Wess when he was with the Count Basie Orchestra. The uplifting melody is played with verve and playful abandon. Guest drummer Marcus Grant offers some stellar brush work before Torres goes off in flight. His airy tone is a delight, buoyant and elevating, the band really swinging on this one.
Perhaps Torres most impressive work is on the composition “Windows,” from the Chick Corea 1968 album Inner Circles. The song was written by Corea for the master flautist Hubert Laws who played on the album. Laws was a huge influence on Torres and here he plays with a reverence that is palpable; a spellbound weaver spinning magical lines like wispy golden threads. His tone is pure, liquid and transcendent. The band responds in kind with a sensitive and moving supporting performance.
Cole Porter’s ballad “So in Love” is performed as a slow, sensuous lament. I’m unaware of the history of this song as part of the jazz flute repertoire (I did find the great Sam Most played it on his Organic Flute album from 2010 and the Canadian flautist Bill McBirnie on his 2015 album Find Your Place ), but clearly Torres does a masterful job making it a sensitive staple of his in this genre.
The finale is a cha-cha originally associated with bandleader Xavier Cugat’s Orchestra titled “Miami Beach Rhumba.” Torres’ trilled notes at the opening sets the stage for this Latin-inspired rhumba. The infectious beat keeps the crowd shaking. Monasterios is again at his best as Torres fires out high-pitched notes, like a stream of bullets over rousing fusillade of Latin percussion.