By Kabir Sehgal
Brisk and buoyant, thoughtful and tireless, Samuel Torres makes a veritable splash with his latest album Alegria.
A talented percussionist from Bogota, Colombia, he grew up absorbing the sounds and culture of the bustling metropolis, where he learned to play a variety musical forms, from jazz, classical, and pop to salsa, cumbia, and vallenato. He is equally at home playing the most avant garde of soundscapes to music infused with Colombian folkloric elements. Growing up, he admired his uncle Edy Martínez, a prominent pianist and arranger based in New York who played with Ray Barretto.
By 1999, Torres made the journey on his own, moving to New York City, where he and the Latin jazz scene hasn’t been the same ever since. Famed bandleader Arturo Sandoval invited Torres to join his group, and they spent four years performing at venues around the world together. Among the other incredible artists with whom Torres has collaborated include Tito Puente, Chick Corea, and Shakira. Moreover, he has also participated in orchestral pieces with the esteemed Los Angeles Philharmonic and Nashville Symphony, among others.
As a bandleader Torres has released three albums, including Skin Tones and Yaoundé. Both of which were heralded by critics as incredible artistic contributions that set the bar. His third production Forced Displacement was a searing commentary on the sociopolitical situation in his native Colombia.
Alegria which means “happiness” or “joy” deals with happier, sunnier themes and emotions. As a recipient of the New Jazz Works Grant from Chamber Music America, he wanted to create a production that evoked hope and optimism, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Out of tragedy can emerge courage and faith. The music on this album is indeed inspired by music from the urban and dance music scene of Bogota. It will surely make you sway from side to side, and even propel you onto the dance floor.
“Salsa, Jazz y Choke” refers to the contemporary and urban style of music that became well known after the Colombian national soccer team danced to these sounds during the World Cup. The Colombian Pacific Coast is where there’s a concentration of Afro Colombians. The music from these areas draws upon Hip Hop and their lyrics can include social criticisms. “I love to groove and had to start with this number,” said Torres. The terrific solos of Marshall Gilkes (trombone), Luis Perdomo (piano) add virtuosity to this piece. Torres composed “The Strength To Love,” as a response to reading some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and realizing that love is the best way to combat hate. “Music can heal, and we musicians can play important roles in our community,” he said. The piece also features Luis Perdomo (Fender Rhodes), Joel Frahm (tenor sax).
“Barretto” is a boogaloo that Torres dedicates to his musical hero, Ray Barretto. “Boogaloo represents the sound of Latin and urban New York City,” he says. The dissonant harmonies are clearly an allusion to Barretto’s compositional style. These polytonal harmonies give this composition added intrigue over which Ruben Rodriguez (bass) and Ivan Renta (baritone sax) render melodic and soulful solos. “Preludio a un Abrazo” is a stirring, elegant paean for reconciliation. It’s built on the Colombian rhythm of bullerengue. It begins with Luis Perdomo (piano) lushly evoking a soundscape. The rumbling percussion adds depth to the piece with Michael Rodriguez (trumpet) and Will Vinson (sax) enriching the music with enchanting solos.
Torres composed “Little Grasshopper” with a 6/8 meter, and it includes Latin American percussion, form the maracas to the cajon. It features Torres (kalimba) and Renta (flute). The band plays together, almost like a choir. Torres was inspired to write this music in this manner because in 2018 he began teaching music to students at a New York City-based high school. “It’s one of the biggest challenges in my life,” he said, and he dedicated this number to his pupils.
“Bolero Para Raquel” lives up to its title. A bolero that is based on a bachata by Juan Luis Guerra, the polished tune flows with plush harmonies. Torres wrote the song about a former lover, and the piece reminds him of the happier moments, and even some of the more difficult ones. “It’s remarkable how a song can bring you back to a certain moment in time, of when you fell in love,” he observed. Featured soloist: Joel Frahm (tenor sax).
The title track “Alegria” is an untraditional cumbia. It’s more of a “cumbia chica” that draws on elements from South American indigenous music. The expressive contrasting sections are decidedly feel good and build towards a Will Vinson (alto sax) and Luis Perdomo (piano) solos. “Anga” is Torres’ way of showing his affection and respect for Afro-Cuban music, in particular, the memory of Miguel “Anga” Diaz, a Cuban percussionist. This master musician was “important to my development as an artist and person,” observed Torres. “When we jammed together, he said that I touched his soul, and that always stayed with me,” he said. The piece features Gilkes (trombone) and Renta (baritone sax)
It has indeed been a joy to produce Alegria with maestro Torres. He is a one-of-a-kind, irrepressibly magnificent artist who taps his whole being for his music. He’s a marvel, and his music is a model for us all.
—Kabir Sehgal is a New York Times bestselling author and Multi-Grammy & Latin Grammy Award winning producer