Sass, Class and Panache: A Take Five Tribute to Revered Salsa Pianist Professor Joe Torres

Apr 19, 2020

The recent passing of Nuyorican pianist Professor Joe Torres reminds us that the important role of a sideman is all too often ignored.

A first-class accompanist who was revered by his colleagues for his ability to add sabor (flavor) and drive, he was also respected for his sight-reading skills.

These five tracks all demonstrate his driving style, which is based in tradition; he’s also featured as a soloist on four of them. Special thanks to his renowned fellow pianist, Glberto “Pulpo” Colón, for his help with the selection. 

“Para Ochún,” from Héctor Lavoe’s El Sabio (1980)

This track from El Sabio is basically a descarga (jam session tune) showcasing the members of Lavoe’s group. 

The song praises the West African Yoruba-based Orishas (deities) Ochún, goddess of love and the river, and Yemayá, supreme mother of the ocean and life itself. Check out Joe’s opening guajeo (repetitive piano riff) setting up the groove and his great solo. It’s grounded in the típico tradition of Cuban-style piano with his funky octave playing.

“Todo Tiene Su Final,” from Willie Colón’s Lo Mato (1973)

A truth of life told to the tempo of Cuban guaracha son. Again, Joe’s típico style of playing shines on his solo. But also listen to his comping. It drives the rhythm section with sass, class, and panache. Check out the coda (ending) of the tune. It’s the rhythm of Puerto Rican mapaye, or what’s commonly called “a caballo” (the gait of a horse). Switching rhythmic styles like this was a unique trait of the Colón band, and what made it “distinto y diferente” (distinct and different). 

“Piraña,” from Willie Colón’s El Juicio (1975)

A tale of a woman who is like the notorious fish from the Amazon. Colón’s arrangements would often feature quirky twists and turns. In this case, quoting the opening melody of Puerto Rican Juan Tizol’s classic jazz standard “Caravan,” and for a moment, Mongo Santamaria’s “Para Ti.” Although Joe shied away from using jazz harmonic devices in his playing, during his solo he uses some jazz voicings akin to the style of George Shearing. 

“Barrunto,” from Willie Colón’s La Gran Fuga (1970)

La Gran Fuga has one of the most famous album covers in the history of Latin music; an original copy is a highly sought-after prize. Art director Izzy Sanabria (no relation to yours truly) decided to create an image for Colón and the band, starting with Willie's debut album, El Malo — portraying Willie and the band as street badasses. Their third album featured a fake wanted poster with humorous details (like him being armed and dangerous with a trombone).

According to lore, fans began actually calling the FBI and letting them know of Colón’s whereabouts asking if there was a reward. But it’s the music contained here that’s the real reward — solidifying the band’s preeminent stature, and marking the first appearance of Joe as its pianist. Again, notice the band shifting rhythms. Here they switch from Cuban son montuno  into quasi-samba after Joe’s great solo, and then finally into Puerto Rican mapaye at the end. 

“Tu Y Las Nubes,” from Celia Cruz and Willie Colón’s Only They Could Have Made This Album (1977)

Professor Joe Torres in the role of ultimate sideman. Fellow pianist Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón (no relation to Willie) recalls: “Joe could sight-read anything. How do I know? I was there at the recording session for this album. The arrangement in and of itself is complex. Everything was written out. Joe nailed it the first time! And on top of that, he swung the s--t out of it! My jaw dropped, I couldn’t believe it. That’s why they called him ‘Professor,’ and that’s why I was in awe of him.”

Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, “Todo Tiene Su Final”

An extra added bonus. Here is a live version of the “Todo Tiene Su Final,” where you get to hear and see Joe’s solo skills, which are rooted in the Cuban típico octave piano style. Hector Lavoe demonstrates his unique improv (soneo) skills while José Mangual adds fuel to the fire on bongó, cenecerro (hand bell) and coro (background vocals). Eric Matos exudes the NYC salsa power-trombone style in his solo, with Willie finally joining in as they do a Battle Royal.