All That (Latin) Jazz

A late-model Pontiac sits in the driveway of the stucco house that Juan Pablo Torres recently bought in a planned community mushrooming over a lonely strand of south Dade. Torres cheerily answers the door in shorts and sandals and walks quickly past the pristine living room, where the cushions of a curved white damask settee remain undented. The master Cuban trombonist and his wife Elsa prefer to spend their time on the cushy ultrasuede sectional in a more comfortable room off the kitchen, where they drink espresso while their young son watches videos on a wide-screen TV. The sound of a phone ringing in the distance signals the arrival of a fax in the spare bedroom converted to an office.

Clearly Torres's life has changed considerably since he arrived in Miami four years ago with few possessions and only vague possibilities for employment. The products of consumer culture are apparent in his home, but his experience in the United States also comes through in his music, which of late has acquired a distinctly American tinge.

"As a result of direct contact with the United States, I'm aiming my playing more toward jazz," says Torres. "In Cuba I corresponded more to Cuban popular styles, to Cuban forms and rhythms, always with a general audience in mind. When I got to this country, I began to exploit my artistic potential a little more."

Torres does just that on Pepper Trombone, his second and latest album on RMM Records' Tropijazz imprint, and he covers ample territory. His trombone slides from bluesy wails to hectic jazz riffs, erupting into staccato blasts, then settling into sensuous, smoky tones. Backed by an outstanding quintet of Miami-based musicians from Cuba and Venezuela (including pianist Silvio Monasterio and drummer Carlos Salvador), Torres moves from standard jazz to the varied syncopated rhythms that fall within the far-reaching definition of Latin jazz.

Overall, the album probably has more appeal to jazz fans than lovers of traditional Latin music, but songs with a Cuban beat stand out. On the gorgeous "Rumba del Cajun," written by Torres, Alberto Palenzuela's exquisite conga drumming rides alongside a lush trombone melody. A saucy version of Ernesto Lecuona's Spanish-influenced classic "Malaguena" features punchy brass and piano improvisation, accented with vocals chanted by Torres and Elsa. On a jazzy samba called "Dream of Brazil," the trombonist is joined by Paquito D'Rivera playing a joyful clarinet. Trumpet player Arturo Sandoval also appears as a special guest, dropping in for a driving Latin jazz jam titled "Together Again."

About 30 years ago Torres, D'Rivera, and Sandoval (along with pianist Chucho Valdes) played side by side in the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, which the Cuban government formed in an attempt to get young Cubans interested in the music produced on the island. "The Modern Music Orchestra was created at a time when Cuban radio was totally closed to foreign music," explains Torres. "So all of the young people were tuning in to Florida stations on shortwave. The government started saying that this was causing an 'ideological penetration,' so they had to do something." Cuban officials decided to combat the problem by putting together a band that would have the same appeal for youth as the prohibited American music. This new national sound would incorporate elements of jazz, rock, and Cuban popular rhythms.

Torres was studying at the National School of Art in Havana when he was drafted into the band. He had come to the capital just a year earlier from Puerto Padre, a small town on the island's northeast coast. He was introduced to music by his father, a barber who played trumpet and trombone in the municipal orchestra. "Instruments were my toys," recalls Torres. "I always wanted to be a musician." As a child he picked up the basics of guitar, percussion, and piano on his own, and later attended the local music school. None of the teachers knew how to play trombone, however, so Torres ended up teaching himself, adapting the lessons given for clarinet. At the conservatory in Havana, Torres and his classmates, who included D'Rivera, were trained to play classical music. They were allowed to play nothing else.

"Paquito and I used to sneak out of school," recalls Torres with a mischievous smile. "We'd escape at night and go to the clubs and jam."

When Torres was drafted into the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, he was at last able to dip into the popular rhythms and jazz sounds that had always attracted him. "In Cuba I was doing a kind of improvisation similar to that in jazz, with Cuban rhythms," he explains. "Dance music is music that's based on very simple harmonies. I was doing a kind of popular music that was more complex."

Although the orchestra was a great success, the young musicians later went their separate ways. Valdes, D'Rivera, Sandoval, and others formed Irakere in 1973. Torres went off on his own. "They were more interested in pure jazz, and I always emphasized the elements of Cuban popular music," the trombonist says. "They didn't consider that what I was doing was jazz at all. I didn't find out until later that what I was playing was similar to what Mario Bauza and others were doing in New York -- it was what they call Latin jazz."

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