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Nestor Torres

One of the most exciting aspects of jazz is the joy of discovery. I confess that I wasn’t all that familiar with the talented flute work of Nestor Torres but after I listened to his new album, Sin Palabras (Without Words) (Heads Up International) that I was glad I had traded ignorance for enlightenment. This album finds Torres exploring not just Latin and jazz rhythms, but a tasty mix of hip-hop and rhythm and blues added in for an extra shot of funky flavor.

But Nestor Torres isn’t just cool to listen to. He’s a fascinating man to talk to. He’s got something to say and not just on a CD. Check him out and see if you don’t agree.

JazzReview: Congratulations on the new album, Sin Palabras. What was different on your approach to this project in comparison to your last album?

Nestor Torres: I made a specific point on this production to be more current, much more in the current of what’s going on in the mainstream musical scene these days. On my other works I have not been as conscientious of that. Whatever was showing up for me musically and artistically was from my experimenting with different combinations of rhythms while keeping updated technologically.

I have to give a lot of the credit to the folks at Heads Up. They really worked with me and kept me on track. I had not been as focused as I am now. I’m really thrilled with the results.

JazzReview: What was the process of choosing the songs that went into the new album?

Nestor Torres: The process varies. For my last recording Mi Alma Latina (My Latin Soul) I listened to a lot of Latin songs from different times and periods. Whatever songs that were closest and meant something to me, I recorded. On this particular production something interesting happened because this is where I did a lot of co-writing work but James Lloyd actually wrote the majority of the songs.

Dave Love, president of Heads Up, introduced me to James Lloyd of Pieces of a Dream and he really wanted me to work with James. I was a little reluctant because I didn’t know him, but once we met we got along great. My focus before this record was strongly Latin with some pop and jazz.

With James Lloyd, Jimmy Haslip and Carlo Pennisi, I was able to explore a bit more of the hip-hop and R n’ B kind of groove. Because I’m not familiar with it I let them take the lead in the writing and producing. As a result I’m really thrilled with Sin Palabras and my capacity has expanded. Overall, my focus was to present the flute voice in a way that would sound like my own voice.

JazzReview: Let’s talk about playing the flute. The flute is not an instrument most people would associate with jazz. What attracted you to this instrument?

Nestor Torres: Even though the flute has not been identified as a "jazz voice" like the saxophone or guitar or trumpet, the flute per se is a universal instrument. Just about every culture in the world has a flute tradition such as Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil or the South American Andes and all the way to the Far East, India and Bali. It is really a very universal sound.

In the jazz field it isn’t that familiar. That being said, I picked up the flute almost by chance. My father being a musician, I was always surrounded by all kinds of instruments and when I saw a flute it was something different. I was curious and said, "Okay. I’ll play that,." without really thinking much about it. But I really took to it. (Torres went on to study both jazz and classical music at the Mannes School of Music in New York and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, among other places.) After a few years I also studied the sax, but I realized though [that]there were many great saxophone players, [but] not many great flutists. That’s when I decided to pursue the flute.

JazzReview: Was there any musicians that particularly inspired you?

Nestor Torres: The preeminent flute influence for me was Hubert Laws. There’s no question.

JazzReview: During a celebrity boat race in Miami in 1981 you crashed and were left with eighteen fractured ribs, two broken clavicles and a collapsed lung. While you were recovering your wife left you, the record company dropped you and your home was nearly repossessed. There was an outpouring of support from the South Florida community and your home was saved. You became a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism as part of your road to recovery. How has your life experiences and faith impacted your music?

Nestor Torres: My faith translates into my music and daily life. It gives my music a sense of purpose and direction. Rather than saying I want to be a musician to sell records, it’s so much more. "Gee, I have the talent. How can I share it with as many people as possible?" When I come from that perspective I’m able to weather the difficult currents of the music business and the entertainers life. It’s very difficult and unstable.

I can confidently say that my Buddhist practice is my backbone, but having a healthy and correct philosophy of life is fundamental. Not only for my work, but my own daily life. I really feel that the work of an artist will reflect whom he really is and therefore I try to develop myself as a human being, knowing inevitably that will reflect in my art.

JazzReview: I recall the Japanese pianist Keiko Matsui once said "music is like prayer." It is a spiritual experience for you when you are on stage playing before thousands of people?

Nestor Torres: You cannot help it. It is...the very nature of the experience between the artist and the audience is an exchange, a communion.

Even if there’s a performer working in a club and nobody is listening to you; no one’s paying attention and they’re talking and picking up their glasses and drinking and not really listening to you, still the music is affecting that environment. If there’s a party going on and you have live music and you’re doing your thing and people aren’t paying attention and, suddenly you stop, that’s going to make a change.

What else could it be, but spiritual - even if it manifests itself physically? You’re at a concert and you see a beautiful woman on stage. Or as a performer you see beautiful women in the audience and there’s kind of a chemistry going on. The music is part of that electricity, part of that connection. It is absolutely a spiritual experience.

JazzReview: Let’s shift from the spiritual world to the technological one. All we hear today is how practice of downloading music is destroying the record business. Is it? It used to be that buying a record was fun going to the store and browsing the titles. Now we just burn a CD and rip the songs we like. How is it affecting jazz musicians?

Nestor Torres: A friend of mine visiting from Germany who is a devout music fan said there was a certain kind of reverence when you would buy a record. You would wander through the record store and be there a long time looking at covers and making what choice of music to buy was an important decision. Now it is different. To be candid, the way it is affecting me as a jazz musician I would not be the best person to the sense of how it is affecting our music. Indeed, downloading has hurt some, but it’s much more endemic than that.

There are two things going on here. The record companies are very much like American human beings; which is we don’t like to take responsibility. I shouldn’t just say Americans, but human beings by nature would rather either have someone else be the culprit or to take care of things for us.

The record companies say, "Oh, they’re downloading and they’re stealing from us." It’s much more than that. The record companies will sign a number of artists, put them out paying attention to only a couple that have potential for a lot of sales. Out of ten artists being signed only two might be successful so the amount of money spent on the other eight by absorbed by just those two. Executives were making extraordinary, extreme amounts of money. It had to come to a head. Now it has. The recording industry is now imploding. It’s cause and effect.

On the other hand, what the recording industry has become from its inception to today is a reflection of society in terms of its economics. Harry Belafonte moved me to tears when he was introducing Gilberto Gil, who is now minister of culture in Brazil, when he received an award at the Latin Grammy’s. Belafonte said, "Today art is nothing but a commodity. We don’t treat art as an important part of culture."

We go to K-Mart and say, "Okay, I gotta get some toilet paper, a toothbrush and a couple pieces of art." I’m speaking of CD’s now. You buy it in a store and it’s very expendable. It’s an expendable commodity.

Young people today come from a different generation. You and I come from a generation whose parents struggled pretty hard and wanted their children to not go through what they had been through. So what happened as a result? We’ve become very lax. We’re coming into the first generation to seek the easier path. The easier the better. If you don’t have to pay, don’t pay. If you don’t have to work, don’t work. What is the most you can get with the least amount of effort? Nothing could be easier than taking something for free. But it’s not the kid’s fault. It’s our nature. "Let’s take it." Why? Because we don’t place any value on it. The value of purchasing something or working so that you can purchase something is a loss for all society.

It’s much bigger than the record industry. On the other side of the coin, because of the technology, the industry has no choice but to acclimate and adjust it. As an artist I no longer depend on a record company. I’m very happy to be with one, by the way, and I’m thrilled to be with one that is keeping up with the times. Heads Up is the kind of label that releases one artist a month. All the resources of the company go to that artist for that particular time. There is a way to be able to keep up with the times. Heads Up is very aware and they love and respect the music and the artist as well. At the same time, as artists we need to own up and take responsibility to make things happen. We can’t say, "the record company will make it happen" or "it’s my manager’s fault." Now there’s no doubt about it. An artist must take full responsibility for his career and his development.

JazzReview: I’m curious Mr. Torres. In your opinion is there a difference between the Latin and African American jazz scenes or is it all just jazz?

Nestor Torres: There is definitely a difference and I just experienced something like that. My sister Deborah is an actress and poet who recently began doing spoken word performance. When we first moved to New York from Puerto Rico I was 18 and my sister was only six years old. She had the whole culture shock of a new language and new community. We are Latinos and Puerto Ricans, but I am a black man. FYI I have African blood in my veins and so does my sister. What we found was this fascinating difference. "Well, you’re not black. You’re Latino."

Hello? Look at my nose. Look at my skin. I want you to meet my grandparents. So, from that perspective it’s interesting because we all come from the same place. There are variations on the theme, but we all come from the same place. There’s a marked difference between the black and Latin experience. My sister was performing at a poetry night and the audience was predominantly African American. The hostess made a point about the difference between the blacks and the Latinos in the house.

Yeah, sure there’s a difference, but you’ve got the drum and we’ve got the drum. The white man let us keep the drums.

JazzReview: Well, I sure hope that black, Latino and white jazz fans go out and buy Sin Palabras (Without Words) because it’s a great album and I really enjoyed every minute of it. Good luck and I hope to see you on tour.

Nestor Torres: Thanks a lot and take care.

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nestor Torres
  • Interview Date: 4/1/2004
  • Subtitle: With Words (and Music)
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