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Bobby Torres / Photos by Jason E Kaplan
Bobby Torres / Photos by Jason E Kaplan

Bobby Torres and Luis Conte: Forty years of drumming together – Portland Jazz Festival – from OMN the Mag

BY TOM D'ANTONI // Has it really been twenty-two years since percussionist Bobby Torres started his band? Sure has.

Luis Conte w/ Bobby Torres & his Full Ensemble featuring special guests Karla Harris, Julana & Carmelo Torres, Shoshana Bean, Jimmy Mak’s, Saturday, February 28, 7:30pm & 10pm,$20 GA and $25 reserved, as part of the Portland Jazz Festival.

Twenty-two years with no signs of slowing down. He is Portland’s best known and most beloved percussionist. It’s not news that he was in Joe Cocker’s band at Woodstock, or that he was a very busy session player in L.A., playing on lots of hits with lots of hit makers–from Jackson Browne to Tom Jones to The Captain & Tennille (he was actually on “Do It To Me One More Time”) to Kenny Rogers and Gladys Knight, among many others.

That’s part of Torres lore.

His children regularly play with him. Daughter Julana and son Carmelo will be on this gig. Drummer Reinhardt Melz, his other son, will not.

L to R: Luis Conte, Reinhardt Melz, Carmelo Torres, Bobby Torres at Cathedral Park Jazz Festival 2010
Luis Conte was born in Cuba, ended up in L.A., and has built a long career playing in movies and with Madonna, Ray Charles, Phil Collins, Santana, Shakira, Sergio Mendes and many more.

But he’s always played with Torres, ever since they met as students. A few years ago, Torres told me this story of another gig with Conte at Jimmy Mak’s.

“It was December 20, 2008. I flew Luis in from L.A., Carmelo was here from Austin. We rehearsed and it started snowing the day we were supposed to play. We did drum clinic and hardly anyone showed up. We were constantly on the phone with J.D. (Stubenberg) from Jimmy Mak’s. ‘Isn’t looking good, Bobby.’

“By six-thirty we had a hundred cancellations on the reservations. I said, ‘We’ll can it. We’ll have more people in the band than in the audience.’ We’re hanging around at home wondering what to do, drinking wine. Carmelo played piano, bass drums, everything… He starts playing piano, Luis says ‘Hey, that’s great! Let’s make up a song with that.’ We started adding.

“‘Bobby Torres/Jimmy Mak, that’s it!’ We started making up stuff. Reinhardt was saying, ‘Please cancel my reservation,’ it was hilarious. You can hear me laughing my ass off. Reinhardt and Carmelo were laughing the way I was laughing. It was a great night, I’m glad we captured it on tape.

“Reinhardt is saying, ‘Jimmy, open the door, Jimmy!’ Carmelo’s saying, ‘I got my skis, let’s go!’ We worked on it till four in the morning. I kept falling asleep. Luis is going to put it on his CD.”

We talked with Bobby Torres at his NE Portland home:

You must be excited about this gig at the festival.

Luis Conte, Carmelo Torres, Karla Harris and Bobby Torres.
Oh yeah, very excited.

I’ve known Luis for forty years. I’m bringing up Shoshana Bean who was a lead singer in my band. I’m bringing back Karla Harris from Atlanta. My daughter Julana is singing…my son Carmelo, who played with Jason Mraz and who’s with Los Lonely Boys now, will be on percussion.

Shoshana and my daughter grew up together. At seventeen she was singing with me at Key Largo.

Is it easier or harder to work with your kids?

(Pause) Trick question. It’s both. I always want my kids around. So it’s a fulfilling feeling to have them there when you’re playing… I get choked up thinking about that stuff. It took me a long time to get over that. I take it personally. At the same time, when they’re there and I hear them… especially Reinhardt, Jesus. Just makes it night and day compared with any other. Carmelo, another freak. It’s amazing what they do. I can’t do what they do. Not even close.

How did you first meet Luis?

He met me. He was playing with the Hughes Corporation. We both went to Los Angeles Community College together for music. I dropped out but he kept on going.

What was it about you two that made you hit it off?

He told me that when he first heard me play, he got scared.

That you were a monster…

…something like that. We would play together, we were hanging out with Carlos Vega… Lenny Castro… all those guys. Fun times.

What did you really enjoy playing with Luis?

Rhumba… improvising… the Cuban way… (demonstrates on the congas). We’ve kept in touch all this time. At least once a month we talk to each other.

What tunes can we expect?

Shoshanna doing “Ain’t No Way.” She also has a song called “Runaway Train” on her new CD which I re-arranged.

Has she approved?

Not yet, she’ll probably throw a fit. She always does. Just a slight, slight re-arrangement to make it a little more Latiny. Just took out a couple of notes.

Karla is going to do “Take Five” from her new CD. She got the rights to Brubeck’s lyrics and songs that were never recorded by Brubeck. So she has a whole bunch of songs that he’s done.

And it all revolves around you.

Yeah, it does. (laughs) Picking the right people and the right music, of course it makes me feel good. I’m looking forward to it.

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