By Stephen Vargha
Cuenca is becoming a jazz lover’s paradise.
But it was a desert for jazz not long ago.
“Ten years ago, it was difficult to find jazz in this city,” said Christian Torres. “Cuencanos did not know what jazz was all about.”
The 41-year-old Cuencano musician should know. Jim Gala, the American founder of Ecuador’s first jazz club, Jazz Society Café Restaurant, approached Torres in 2012 to fill out his new jazz band.
“He was looking for a double bass player. Jim went everywhere, and everyone told him I was the only one in the city,” said Torres. “I am still playing with Jim and Su Terry. I have been with her since the beginning.”
Terry is an internationally acclaimed saxophonist and clarinetist. A native of Wilton, Connecticut, Terry grew up with Dave Brubeck and his sons. Torres and Terry make up part of the jazz group Jazz De Barro, which means “Mud Jazz.”
The group released its first album “Festejo De Capishca” in 2020. Capishca is a musical genre of Andean dance music popular in Ecuador, especially in the provinces of Chimborazo and Azuay. The word “capishca” comes from the Quichua, capina, which means “to squeeze.” A second album by Jazz de Barro is in the works with a release planned for next year.
It seemed that Torres was destined to play the electric bass and double bass. Both are the lowest-pitched bowed (or plucked) string instrument. Torres started playing the electric bass at the age of 15.
“My father was an electric bassist,” said Torres. “He played for a Cuencano dancing orchestra whose specialty was Cumbia.” That style of music originated in Colombia and became popular throughout Latin America and the United States. Traditional cumbia music uses a blend of African, Amerindian (indigenous peoples of the Americas), and European styles. Musical instruments such as drums, flutes, maracas, and accordions are used.
Torres had no formal training when he picked up the electric bass. “I imitated my father,” said Torres. “Sometimes he helped me play simple tunes.”
At the University of Cuenca, Torres studied music to pursue his passion. Those studies earned him a position with the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra in 2005.
“I was just 25 years old,” said Torres. “The symphony was looking for someone who played the double bass.” It also helped that the director at that time played jazz. “After seeing me play jazz, he asked me to join the symphony,” said Torres.
Despite his musical talents and university studies, Torres could not read sheet music. “I forced myself to learn to read it,” said Torres. “My father could not read it either, so I taught myself.”
His English and friendship with Gala garnered Torres a one-year scholarship at the Milt Hinton Institute for Studio Bass at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, just outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
“When I met Jim in 2012, he could not speak Spanish and I could not speak English. While playing with Jim, I learned English,” said Torres. “In 2017, Jim nominated me for a scholarship which I won.”
Jazz became part of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra in November 2020. Jazz de Barro performed with the symphony in a program that fused the jazz group’s music with the history of classical music. Torres was able to play jazz and classical music in the same performance.
The 2020 performance seemed to be the springboard for the proliferation of jazz in the city, which sails into the winds of what has happened in the United States. Jazz is pretty much nonexistent in the U.S.
In 2014, Nielsen Media Research reported that jazz garnered a measly 1.4 percent of music consumption in the United States. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said at the time, the music’s lifespan lasted from the 1900s to the 1960s.
Many historic jazz clubs in the U.S. have closed. Top venues such as Blue Whale in Los Angeles, Tonic and Lenox Lounge, and Jazz Standard in New York City and Cecil’s Jazz Club in New Jersey no longer exist. The closures are part of a decades-long trend, adding to what Marsalis stated. Jazz clubs in the U.S. have largely been replaced with gigs in bars and restaurants.
Torres has a theory on why jazz has become popular in Cuenca while slowly fading away in the United States. “I think that when Gringos started living in Cuenca, they created a demand for jazz. At that time, Cuencanos were more interested out of curiosity. It was something new for them,” said Torres.
He is amazed at the growth of jazz in Cuenca. “I am surprised that jazz has become popular,” said Torres. “It may be because young people are interested and curious with the genre.”
This popularity is perfect for Torres. “I prefer jazz. It is my passion,” said Torres. “I like all forms of jazz, be it modern/fusion or classic.”
His love of jazz has Torres performing with another group. In May, he joined the Esteban Encalada Quartet. Founded by Esteban Encalada Astudillo, the Cuencano jazz band has been around for about seven years.
The group combines the sounds and rhythms of jazz with Ecuadorian and Latin American music. Last year, they recorded “11: 11,” which is on YouTube.
The group performed for La Guarida’s monthly Saturday jazz brunch, including playing ” 11: 11.” Owner and chef Andrés Zambrano just started the monthly intimate musical event, and he hopes to have the Esteban Encalada Quartet at future brunches due to their popularity.
Four days later, the quartet was part of Festival Cuenca Jazz, which was held at Teatro Sucre. Torres is pleased with the growing turnout and venues. “I think the jazz audience will continue to grow in Cuenca,” said Torres.
He thinks it starts with the grassroots. Torres explained that in 2015, an American professor started teaching how to play double bass at the University of Cuenca. “After I graduated from his classes, he moved,” said Torres. “Now, I am teaching double bass to three students at the university.”
The goal is to expand what he is currently doing at the university level. “My goal is to form a jazz school at the University of Cuenca,” said Torres. “Su Terry has done workshops at the university and hopefully we can work together to make this a reality.”
Maybe his teenaged son could be one of the jazz school’s first students.
“My 15-year-old son is following in his family’s footsteps,” said Torres. “He is playing the electric bass… just like me.”
Jazz de Barro, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cuenca Symphony Orchestra, Calle Larga S/N y Avenida Huayna Cápac, Cuenca, 7-410-9186, 7-282-1742
Photos by Stephen Vargha