Review SKIN TONES at Latin Percussion

It's your wake up call! Samuel Torres' Skin Tones is no sleeper. It's exciting from the get go, emphatically contemporary. This is not to say that Torres rejects tradition. But rather than reiterate, Torres has chosen to reconstruct in an instantly pleasing fashion. Also of significance, he has chosen instead to record fully seventeen concise tracks, many of which we'll look at.

First off, to the personnel, a distinguished lot. LP artist Samuel Torres is a percussionist of unique ability, one who uses percussion as much for color as for rhythm. Not only that, he is a gifted composer capable of a blend of melody and intricacy-a difficult balance to achieve. Usually one triumphs by sacrificing the other. What that means is that the casual listener can hum, while the musician can do all those "musicianly" things: analyze, take apart, and listen over and over. Incidentally, Torres also plays Fender Rhodes, piano, and various percussion.

Torres is aided by the nimble bassist John Benitez, pianist Hector Martignon, vocalist Julia Dollison, and killer kit drummer Ernesto Simpson. That would be enough, but we also have Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, Mike Campagna on tenor, guests Edmar Castaneda, harp, Ralph Irizarry on timbale, and Wolfgang Barros on Columbian Maracon.

To the Tracks!

"Crazy Montuno" is not so crazy as it is slick. Ernesto Simpson begins with a lick that reminds equally of LP artists Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl-with a nod to Harvey Mason. Ernesto is crisp and definite; there's never a doubt as to his intentions. Samuel has his congas tuned perfectly to complement Ernesto; it's a nice blend of mellow to crisp, respectively. As the tune closes, Mike takes a spirited sax solo and it's not so much of a mambo as a New York funk chorus.

"Interlude One" is just that, a little stretch for Samuel Torres on congas, unaccompanied. It's concise and to the point.

We move to the funky "Saying Goodbye", with its salsa undercurrent, wherein vocalist Julia Dollison, to this point an acquired taste, begins to take hold. She reminds a little of, say, Flora Purim in the way she comes up behind the note, very much in the South American tradition. Benitez holds this one together, popping and slapping the bass strings, particularly around 4:15. Twenty-four measures later a rousing drum solo appears over his ostinato. Again, who is this Simpson? The stereo panning on this track is wide, with toms to the outside, making for an exciting listen.

"Interlude Two" finds Torres in melodic mode. It's just a snippet, mind you, but it sings to you as congas rarely do.

Picking a radio hit is easy: It's "Observatory", featuring Julia's wistful, delicate vocals, very clean and attractive. Interestingly, and contrary to the pop formula, the bass takes a solo and it's totally right for the track in terms of texture and melodic content.

Melodic congas and harp provide a memorable opening for "Rumba con Maria". You're actually hearing harp in a Cuban context-plucked, struck for full improvisational effect. Meanwhile, Torres treads softly, contributing melody and interesting conga counterpart to the defined attack component of the harp.

Ernesto's sharp snare drum backbeat and firm bass drum, much in the Joey Heredia tradition, defines the next track, "Ajiaco" (Columbian potato soup), as does the languid trumpet of Mike Rodruigez. Again, we're humming along, not fighting to comprehend, and yet there's plenty of musical challenge below the surface.

A darker feel pervades "The Key", which, despite its suggestive title, is not in clave, at least the Cuban sense. Pianist Hector Martignon does some welcome stretching out around 1:36, with bass and drumset shadowing him each step of the way.

We said we'd look at a selection of the seventeen tracks presented herein, but we'd be remiss not to consider the title track. "Skin Tones" is nimble as nimble gets, a tribute to Samuel Torres' light touch, crisp articulation, and respect for exact note values. It's a beautiful solo and gone in the blink of an eye.

Other tracks to note include the angular "Express to Queens", fraught with syncopation and bustle. During the piano solo, a clave, or perhaps LP block, rears up a couple of times and vanishes, unable to take root, more significant as a color rather than in an Afro-Cuban organizational sense.

Sounding a little out-of-context is the shuffle, "Fairy Tale", perhaps the best forum for Julia Dollison's vocals. A "radio version" of "Ajiaco" is just that, as is a radio-friendly take of "Observatory" (funny, I'd already labeled the earlier version as radio-friendly!). Perhaps the vocals are mixed more to the fore. Certainly the track length is reduced by a couple of minutes. That smart bass solo is still there, if abbreviated. And that's how Skin Tones rides out, with two more radio versions of previous tunes. To some this will appear a wise move; to others the real music will have already gone by. But all will agree this is a major release.


For more information on Samuel Torres, please visit his web site.