Trombonist Steve Turre is one of those congenitally honest characters who nonchalantly meets life head-on and determines for himself the topic of conversation. Reached last week at the appointed time for a phone interview, he politely but firmly requested a callback in 15 minutes so he could finish his bowl of soup.
Back on the line, Turre commenced a long soliloquy about the caliber of food in jazz clubs across the country, eventually proclaiming top honors for the Dakota, where he'll appear Tuesday as a member of the Latin Jazz All-Stars.
The All-Stars are Turre's kind of band.
"This isn't show business. It's creative art," he said gruffly. "We all come with our hearts on our sleeves, and we play in the moment."
Turre, who turns 65 this year, is a multiple Downbeat Magazine poll-winner, a longstanding member of both the "Saturday Night Live" house band and the faculty at Juilliard in New York City. He has released 15 jazz records under his own name. Yet whenever the opportunity arises, he sets out on barnstorming tours with the Latin Jazz All-Stars, who never have released a record.
The idea for the band came from Jason Franklin, better known as singer/producer/entrepreneur Jayce Falk, who in 2001 decided to round up the best Latin jazz artists he could find. Fortunately, Turre was one of his first contacts, and supplied a list of names and numbers for Falk to call.
From the start, the All-Stars have used a rotating cast of musicians, with Turre as unofficial leader. Tuesday's gig kicks off their 12th annual tour.
The last time they played the Dakota was in January 2011, a memorable engagement that featured Turre and Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi in a septet that also included a rousing percussion section of Pete Escovedo on timbales, Chembo Corniel on congas and Diego Lopez on drums. They lathered a rhythmically piquant Latin sauce over songs by bop icons Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver along with some group originals. With Turre moving from trombone to a variety of conch shells for different effects, they performed an eerie and ethereal rendition of Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" that provoked a standing ovation.
Escovedo and Corniel return with Turre on Tuesday. Among the noteworthy new faces will be Puerto Rican flutist/composer Nestor Torres, who is equally versed in Latin, jazz and classical musics, and striking young Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca, musical director of Corniel's Grammy-nominated group.
"What I like about these groups is that each person has been an individual bandleader, but there are no egos. Everybody works as a unit," says Corniel.
For Escovedo, who resides on the West Coast, it is a chance to connect with his compadres from the East. "Those East Coast guys have an attitude about the style of Latin jazz that should be played that is a little harder," he says, only half-kiddingly.
"Don't get me started," Turre says, when asked about the difference between coastal variants of Latin jazz. "Let's just say that what we do is not at all watered down."
Ironically, Turre, whose mother is of Mexican ancestry, got his first major exposure to Latin jazz decades ago in the Escovedo Brothers group, co-led by Pete. "I've lost count of how many times we've played together," he says. As for Torres, "Nestor and I used to play together back in Manny Oquendo's band. We did all the dance clubs in New York."
Asked what makes the All-Stars so special, Turre's response is typically honest and immediate. "It's because everyone understands the rhythm and the language.
"When you have a musical conversation, the African rhythm is the foundation for not only jazz and funk, but cumbia, bossa nova, meringue, salsa, samba. It evolved differently in different countries, but it has the same root. You have to understand the dialects, or you're not getting the full meaning. We understand that we are all branches from the root of the same tree.
"You've heard the band: We get together and we go out and play, in the moment. We don't always know what we're going to play until we play it. You want a choreographed show, go see Trombone Shorty. This is, 'Let's play this now!' That's a creative feeling."