Polyphonies of Art and Action: Samuel Torres Premieres “Forced Displacement”at Zinc Bar

On Wednesday, August 12, 2015, conguero and composer Samuel Torres premiered his new recording, Forced Displacement (Zoho Records), at Zinc Bar in the West Village. As he explained in his introduction to the audience, the album is just one aspect of an ongoing project in San Juan de Urabá, Colombia, which will include a documentary film by the talented filmmaker Noelia Santos. Torres conducted months of archival and in situ ethnographic research and musical study for this work, which was funded by Chamber Music America.

Forced Displacement is an artistic and political statement about the ongoing violence against Afro-Colombians in Torres’s native country. The musical inspiration for the project is the bullerengue, (see video clip below) which Torres referred to as “the most rustic roots basis” for cumbia, the popular dance music known throughout the Caribbean, United States, and around the world. Torres’s study of the bullerengue led him to master musician Emilsen Pacheco, to whom the 10-part suite that comprises Forced Displacement is dedicated in part. In his pre-performance remarks to the audience, Torres alluded to his compositional philosophy when he said, “I applied the elements of traditional bullerengue, like call and response, to the suite and each of the musicians’ parts.” And as he related to me in between sets, maintaining these traditional elements within the suite has led to positive reception in Colombia where the band has performed the work on two separate tours. And while the NYC audience might not have picked up on the connections between traditional Afro-Colombian bullerengue and Forced Displacement, the artistry, imagination, and passion of Torres and his sidemen definitely translated to a highly successful performance and premiere. 

Joining Torres for the performance were: Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), Will Vinson (alto saxophone), Noah Bless (trombone), Luis Perdomo (piano), Ricky Rodriguez (bass), Ludwig Afonso (drumset), and Jonathan Gomez (Colombian percussion). The band as a collective showed both intimate knowledge of Torres’s composition—there was never a sense that anyone was “lost in the sheet music”—and yet augmented that score through their highly individualized approaches to improvising over the suite’s movements. I heard a direct correlation between the polyrhythmic aspects of bullerengue and the balance, interplay, and improvisational languages of these musicians. With careful attention to timbre, voicing, and formal cohesion, Torres’s skill as a composer was apparent at every juncture: within this one suite, he managed to pay homage to Pacheco, celebrate the bullerengue as an Afro-Colombian art form, and allow enough space for his highly accomplished bandmates to contribute their unique interpretations of his masterful work.

As Torres mentioned at the outset of the performance, Forced Displacement highlights ongoing violence and discrimination against Afro-Colombians. As a piece of art it is meant to educate, encourage conversation, and provoke action. Inasmuch as it celebrates Afro-Colombian culture and Pacheco and the bullerengue in particular, Torres’s work and the dialogue he has started around it draws attention to the conditions against which Pacheco and others like him much resist—the obstacles they must overcome—and seeks to inspire us, his audience, to promote intercultural understanding and the ethically informed awareness that might bring about changes to these inequalities and injustices. This interplay between celebration and advocacy can be heard as another kind of polyphony within Forced Displacement, where languid and reflective passages alternate with lively and polyrhythmic moments more likely to be associated with latin jazz as a genre.

All of these polyphonies—between composition and improvisation, art and politics, individual and collective, celebration and calls-to-action—played out beautifully at the premiere. From his earlier recordings, I knew of Torres´s skill as a composer of shorter pieces—head arrangements that followed jazz and descarga (among other) conventions for improvised music—but I was struck at Torres’s manipulation of longer forms in Forced Displacement, which showed sensitivity to melodic settings, motivic development, formal cohesion, and overall compositional inventiveness. He expertly utilized the timbral palettes and instrumental textures that his sidemen offered in statements of melody, background vamps, and improvisational accompaniments. Torres’s performance on congas was equally virtuosic. I risk downplaying the artistry of his performance by calling it “typical” of the many performances that have earned him a reputation as one of the most talented and in-demand percussionists in the jazz world. However on this night, I heard particularly inspired moments that no doubt were fueled by Torres´s passion for the subject of Forced Displacement and all those who have journeyed with him on this project.

Throughout the evening, each musician demonstrated moments of artistry and improvisational prowess. Trumpeter Michael Rodriguez showed a wide range of ideas, stylistic fluency, and registral acumen. His solos were a compelling mix of inventive harmonies interpolated over and around Torres´s chord progressions fit perfectly within the polyrhythmic and polymetric grooves. Will Vinson (alto saxophone) provided a stark and engaging juxtaposition, more often floating over the rhythm section, locking in briefly before launching on yet another long, melodically rich line. Trombonist Noah Bless performed excellently all evening, contributing a series of exciting, highly interactive improvisations that elicited very sympathetic and encouraging responses from his bandmates. Aside from covering to a wide range of feels and grooves—all equally solid—throughout the performance, bassist Ricky Rodriguez also contributed a few solos that showed innate feel for each setting along with vocalesque sense of melodic phrasing that highlighted the conversation-like interactions among the rhythm section musicians. As with the entire ensemble, the three percussionists on stage complemented each other while distinguishing themselves individually. Performing on drumset, Ludwig Afonso was stellar all evening: his accompaniments during Bless’s solos were some of the most entertaining and satisfactory moments of the premiere, while Afonso’s own solo work—both sectional elements of Torres’s suite and in more extended improvisations—demonstrated great command and endless invention. Torres employed percussionist Jonathan Gomez—who is from Torres’s hometown in Colombia—in a role similar to Afonso; however, since Gomez was performing Colombian percussion (tambor alegre, maracon, calabaza, and Colombian tambora), his presence was more front-and-center. Gomez performed masterfully and more than once left this musician marvelling at (and trying to parse out on my table) the intricate polyrhythms that he effortlessly laid out.

Lastly, pianist Luis Perdomo deserves special mention for his contributions to the evening. Aside from Torres himself and Gomez, Perdomo took the most extended solos of the evening. Perdomo’s command of straight-ahead and latin musical genres make him an ideal fit for Forced Displacement. With chorus after chorus of well-constructed melodies, set in adventurous harmonic superimpositions and complex rhythmic structures, Perdomo’s pianism consolidated the action, art, and interplay of Forced Displacement in 88 keys. To me, one sign of an excellent jazz composition is its ability to foster the individual talents of its performers. Inasmuch as Torres rightly allocated Perdomo ample space to contribute in wide swaths to the premiere, Perdomo seized the opportunity and turned in a stellar sideman performance, augmenting the suite and his bandmates while excelling at every moment when the spotlight shifted his way.

While the first set of the performance featured the entire Forced Displacement suite in sequential order, the second (and final) set included just selected movements along with the set opener, “Express from Queens,” from Torres’s first recording, Skin Tones. In the latter set, the band stretched out a bit more, ending the night more focused on celebrating their collective musicality and camaraderie with a series of descarga-like performances that left the audience clamoring for more. In all aspects, the evening was a triumphant success!

In closing, here are two clips from Tempo Rubato, the Santos documentary still to be completed. The first shows Pacheco’s group performing a bullerengue (with Torres in the audience) and the second shows an early rehearsal of the Forced Displacement project:

Torres and I have been discussing this project for some time now and I was delighted to hear the band premiere the work in New York. I’m eagerly awaiting the completion of Santos’s documentary that follows Torres on his study and interactions with Pacheco in San Juan de Urabá; and we’ll be talking more in preparation for a feature for TRoS, including an interview and longer review of the album. Stay tuned for more!

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