Cover Story

Irving Flores: Maestro of the Piano

Irving Flores

I remember first hearing the piano phenomenon Irving Flores about ten years ago in a band led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos at his weekly jam session at the bustling (and profoundly loud) nightclub El Camino on India Street down by the airport.

Flores comes at you like a freight train, both hands fully loaded and synched in a hypnotic choreography. He generates excitement with an almost casual sense of ease, as if he’s observing all the commotion from a distance. It’s just about impossible to take it all in without becoming physically involved—the body wants to move.

The club was packed to the rafters with shoulder-to-shoulder witnesses, and every time Flores got the chance to let loose, more converts were created. I’ve had the opportunity to catch Irving on many more occasions since then—with the Castellanos band, as leader, and sideman with trombonists Bill Watrous and Dave Scott, the Binational Mambo Orchestra and with a bevy of vocalists. That’s a specialty for him, and it allows him to showcase his mastery of jazz and the Great American Songbook.

Irving plays often with Sacha Boutros at Il Sogno Italiano.

Along those lines, check out his playing with San Diego vocalist Sacha Boutros on Simply Sacha. Also worth your time is his own album Receurdos, which was nominated for “Best World Music Album” at the 2010 San Diego Music Awards. That album featured Flores as a composer, as did a riveting performance at the Piano Summit at Dizzy’s in 2012, where he debuted his sprawling ode to his adoptive country, “American Influence.”

As big of an impact as Irving has made in San Diego, he is also well-known on the national and international stages. In 2009, he was asked to step in for famed pianist and director Oscar Hernandez for a show in Mexico with the renowned Spanish Harlem Orchestra. He’s also recorded with Mexican singer Armando Manzanero and written an arrangement for Latin-American superstar Luis Miguel.

Irving and Gilbert Castellanos accompany Camile McPherson in a performance. Photo by Manuel Cruces Camberos.

In fact, his curriculum vitae reads like an encyclopedia of Latin American music; he’s worked with saxophonist Justo Almario, bassist Abraham Laboriel, trombonist Willie Colon, and vocalist Tania Libertad, to literally name just a few.

Like so many of his peers in the music business, Irving got hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, things are looking up now for once again busy musician. In fact, scheduling an interview with the pianist proved to be a bit of a challenge, as he’s picking up gigs at an astonishing rate.

We got a chance to catch up, for this San Diego Troubadour interview after a busy Sunday (three gigs back to back!) squeezing our talk in before he was to head to Los Angeles the following morning for a gig with trumpet-master (and frequent employer) Gilbert Castellanos.

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I had heard about Irving from other people—there was a little buzz going around town that there was this Latin guy who could really play. At the time I had my Afro-Cuban group and we were working quite a bit. I was looking for a guy who really knew that world. He came in and just killed it. He was so authentic and so pure and organic. I fell in love with his playing from day one. Later on, I found out he’s this amazing composer and arranger and that just blew me away. He is one of the most underrated musicians around town. I think it’s great that you are doing this story about him because everyone needs to know how much he has contributed to the music world on so many different levels and so many different styles of music.

I love the fact that he’s so humble—he’s not trying to show off and take over the gig. A lot of people have the tendency to do that, especially the more insecure players. They want to be the focus of the attention, but he’s not like that. He’s a team player—and when it’s his turn to shine—he shines! He does it without being flashy and he’s super musical. I keep gravitating back to his arranging skills, which are unbelievable. He’s arranged things for me like “Nature Boy,” that have become my signature. He has a magic touch when it comes to that.

—Gilbert Castellanos

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A taste of Irving’s Afro-Cuban Quartet.

San Diego Troubadour: Do you remember your first experience involving music?
Irving:
 I was four or five years old. I was born in Vera Cruz in 1966, and my father, Irving Flores Chala, played the alto saxophone and was a member of the famous Orchestra Tampico, which was an international jazz big band. He was traveling to the United States to a lot of jazz festivals in the 1960s. My memory is of hearing this album by the Bob Leaper Big Band. It was a bunch of songs by the Beatles that he used to play every night when he was not out on the road. I still remember that record all these years later.

SDT: I read somewhere that the organ was your first instrument?
Irving:
Well, we had an acoustic piano, but we lived so close to the ocean, it was not ideal to learn on. So there was an organ in the house that was much more in tune, and my dad used to teach that instrument as well. He was an arranger as well, and I began learning all those skills from my dad when I was just a boy, really.

Irving with Chris Klich & Allison Adams Tucker at the Westgate Hotel. Photo by Manuel Cruces Camberos.

SDT: Is it true that you were playing saxophone as well?
Irving:
Yes, I played the saxophone, thanks to my dad. When I was 15, I moved to Mexico City to continue my studies at the National Music Conservatory. I switched my main instrument to piano there, but I supported my studies in classical piano during the day by playing saxophone and flute at night. I took private piano lessons as well from Claire Sveczenski. She was from Vienna and was a child prodigy. I thank her for my piano technique.

SDT: What caused you to choose piano rather than saxophone or flute or organ?
Irving:
Well, I already knew the keyboard from playing the organ, so I had that information. It wasn’t my main thing until I moved to Mexico City.

SDT: Do you ever miss playing the saxophone?
Irving:
I do love the saxophone, but honestly I learned to play because of my dad. I wanted to be an arranger like him, so I learned a lot of instruments. I learned Afro-Cuban percussion, I learned a little trumpet, a little trombone, a little guitar, just to know the proper way to communicate with musicians. I respect all the instruments, but when I was in Mexico City I fell in love with the piano. I started to focus mainly on that. I was already doing the arranging before I got to the conservatory. I started arranging music very early because of my father. I was doing transcriptions and writing charts when I was seven years old. So, I was writing music already. When I was 20 years old, I moved to Cancun and started playing jazz. There were a lot of great players and bands because it was like the Mexican and Caribbean tourist center with lots of venues to play in. I was playing in Cancun seven days a week, sometimes three or four gigs a day.

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Irving Flores was a major influence on my education as a musician. He and I joined Gilbert Castellanos’ group as Gilbert began to integrate Latin Jazz into his compositions, and I deferred constantly to Irving’s extensive knowledge of the style with which I had significantly less experience. Each composition he contributed to the group carried with it a multitude of stylistic lessons from which I could cultivate a deeper understanding of my own role in the music. Irving consistently demonstrated an uncanny intuition when it came to arrangement and feel, and playing alongside him was an experience full of priceless value. I like to believe that we helped each other develop in this group, having come from diverging sets of performance experience and being thrown together into a crossover style that kept us both constantly on our toes. I will always appreciate his bottomless patience as a mentor and relentless passion as a performer, both qualities that I admire the utmost in great musicians. Irving is a true creative inspiration and a master of his craft. I never take for granted the growth that his presence helped to nurture in my musical aspirations.

—Danny Weller

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Irving with Gilbert Castellanos, Charlie Chavez, and Mackenzie Leighton at 98 Bottles.

SDT: When did the sponsorship with Yamaha happen?
Irving:
When I was 25 years old, almost 26, in 1995, I was playing in the jazz festival in Mexico City when I got a call from Yamaha of Mexico. They became my sponsor, and I began doing clinics all over the country. We did a couple of tours, and that’s where I met Alex Acuna, who played on American Influence.

SDT: What was it that brought you to the United States?
Irving:
My mother passed away in 2004. I was married and had a daughter with a woman who was an American citizen. We were already separated but still friends. She made me an offer to come to America and pursue a career in music over here. She helped me with the paperwork for a permanent resident card. I moved here and was able to watch my daughter, Hayulima, grow up. I appreciate that because she is turning 24 this year. At first, I went to Riverside, because that’s where my ex-wife’s dad was, but I didn’t like it because they had a very limited jazz scene there. One night I came to San Diego. I went to Croce’s and there was a band that was playing Latin jazz  (Primo Band) that night. Their piano player couldn’t make it so I asked if I could sit in. They asked me if I could read music and I said “of course, I’m a professional.” So, I played the first tune and then they asked me what I was doing the rest of the week!

SDT: How soon before you hooked up with Gilbert Castellanos?
Irving:
I asked Brad Steinwehe (who was playing trumpet that night with the Primo Band) where I should go to hear jazz, and I found out about the Onyx Room where I first heard Gilbert. It was just so amazing to hear him play. I came up to him afterward and said, “I really want to play with you, man.” I think I played my first gig with him after a couple of months; he heard some recommendations about my playing. He hired me for a gig at On Broadway and then the Manhattan in La Jolla. He found out that I’m a composer and he encouraged me to bring in original music.

SDT: And you are still playing with him after all these years?
Irving: Since 2008. So yeah, I’m still playing with him. We are actually doing a gig up in L.A. tomorrow. Playing with him is one of the most important projects I’ve ever had in San Diego, in my life. I’m very grateful.

SDT: I’ve noticed that you also play with a lot of singers. What makes you as good accompanist?
Irving:
The first and most important thing is to understand the style of the singer. You must listen very deeply to know what they need, and what they want. Little by little you understand how to accompany them. I got a lot of experience working with many singers when I was in Mexico. Not only pop music—not only Mexican music—but also jazz. I was working with so many singers in Mexico that it became like another school for me. I was producing and writing music for singers. And that is very important. The harmony when you are working with a singer is very important. You have to listen very carefully and focus one hundred percent. They can be very delicate, so you have to open your ears all the way. The energy you can get when it’s a good match—you can feel that immediately.

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He’s the only man I call “Maestro.” For a vocalist, the accompaniment is everything. We need our bandmates to really, truly listen to what we’re doing—our phrasing, our dynamics, our tempo—and support us. That’s what a solid accompanist does. When vocalists work with great musicians, there is an undercurrent of dialogue happening, where we are set up and then responded to. It’s a constant, telepathic, and sympathetic dialogue that the audience doesn’t hear. But at the end of a song, if you see the vocalist locking eyes with a musician and grinning, it’s because it happened, and they are feeling that flash of success and magic. And deep gratitude. And that’s how I always feel when I play with Irving. I would add that there is a graciousness to Irving, because he’s a spectacular soloist in his own right, and he has no ego. He just subsumes himself into what is happening to the music in the moment. It makes him more than just a great musician, it makes him a wonderful, human collaborator.

—Elizabeth Schwartz

Portrait of Irving by Katya Mezhova.

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SDT: Speaking of singers (and trombone players) another key resource for you has been your work with Dave Scott. Can you speak about that relationship?
Irving:
Dave Scott is also very important in the time I’m in America. Ever since I met him in 2008-2009. I started playing with him at Croce’s. I was playing Monday night with Dave Scott, Thursdays with Gilbert, and doing the Sunday brunch at Croce’s. So, I played those Monday nights with Dave, and I discovered the most incredible human being—a very nice person that called me every single time. And thanks to him, I got this opportunity to write an arrangement for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, “Tribute to Frank Sinatra.” He gave me that opportunity. We have a long history, just like my relationship with Gilbert. Dave kept me working. At one point we had steady gigs four times a week. Places like the casino and Northern Spirits in San Marcos and tons of private gigs. So many steady gigs—he wasn’t just my boss, but also one of my best friends. He gave me a place to stay during the pandemic. He’s always helping me out. Also, thanks to him, I got the chance to arrange for [award-winning trombonist] Bill Watrous. Yes, we actually just played yesterday morning, at the La Jolla Arts Festival. So, Dave is a very important person in my life.

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Like flowers to the bee, Irving Flores is a gift to the music world. To be a musician, especially as good as Irving, you have to walk a very narrow path. He has done that his whole life. It’s really a path that began with his father, a path Irving treats with reverence. A path where he dedicates every ounce of energy. You feel that the moment he plays. Especially Latin-based music or bebop. We played Croce’s for a year and then Harrah’s Resort and Casino, and Irving always had the crowd in the palm of his hand. But he’s not only a great musician, he is quietly humble and treats everyone with kindness, plus he’s a wonderful composer and arranger in his own right. A few years ago, I wrote a song called “Christmas with You.” Irving arranged it with strings and we recorded it with legendary trombonist Bill Watrous. It’s now getting airplay around the world. For me, Irving is my friend and my brother. There’s a song I’m hoping to finish recording one day called “Amigo from Tampico.” I wrote it for Irving and I’ll leave you with the words: “Mi amigo from Tampico…he lives all the life for music, the music he knows…and tomorrow, may love follow mi amigo from Tampico.”

—Dave Scott

With Ed Kornhauser at the Westgate Hotel.

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SDT: I know that another key person in your life has been the well-known jazz community supporter Hiro Ikezi. Can you elaborate on that?
Irving:
Oh, Hiro is my dear, dear friend. He is another incredible human being. He has been a huge supporter since I met him. I started recording my first album, Recuerdos, in 2007, and I released it in 2008. That was done at his house: his recording studio. He opened his house to me. After that, our friendship became even stronger; it was incredible. I remember in those years I didn’t have an acoustic piano at my home. I used to come by his house a minimum of four days a week to practice on his beautiful Bosendorfer piano. He opened his house to me and I practiced like crazy on his piano. With his help, I have done many recordings at his place. But I am not just going there to use his studio, we have become very close friends. Now I visit him to have coffee or go to lunch, just to get together, to hang out. He’s an amazing soul and a very good friend.

SDT: How did the pandemic affect you? It must have been a drag to go from playing live every day to shutting down?
Irving:
Yes. Before Covid I was playing every day, and then it all just collapsed from all that craziness. Then things got a little bit worse, and Dave Scott helped me with his little casita [behind] his place. Finally, little by little, in November I started getting more active, to the point where this week, I’m playing every day, and next week I am playing every day.

SDT: That has to be a huge relief.
Irving:
I feel very grateful. I think that things are starting to get back to normal. Even still, I find myself wearing a face mask at a lot of places to protect myself, because I am around a lot of people. I’m exposed to many, many people. Sometimes, I shake their hand, and then I’m like running to get some hand sanitizer.

SDT: You became a United States citizen in 2021. What did that feel like?
Irving:
I am very, very proud of this beautiful country. I love America. I am very proud to be part of America, to be an American citizen. I’m very conscious that I follow the law and not do any stupid things. I want to be a law-abiding American citizen, because that’s the only way I can be a part of this beautiful society. You know I have a lot of followers and I’m pretty sure they love me because I have a lot of respect for this country. I have a lot of love and respect for this beautiful jazz community. And Mexico as well. Of course, I love Mexico. My blood will never change. I have many thanks to say to Mexico. But I have many, many things to be thankful for in this beautiful country.

SDT: Tell our readers what your immediate future plans look like. Where can people see you play live?
Irving:
Well, ever since last May, I have a special gig that I do on every Friday at the Brew Bar [277 3rd Avenue] in Chula Vista and they have an acoustic piano. In that building, they have an incredible, beautiful audience. That’s one of the main gigs I have right now; it’s like my laboratory. It’s perfect for me, because every week I’m renewing music. It’s a challenge and I’m very excited because I’m playing solo piano. I want to push myself to always be in perfect shape.

Another gig that I’m doing every Thursday and Saturday at the Alcove Wine & Beer [5540 El Cajon Blvd.] in El Cajon. They don’t have an acoustic piano, so I bring my keyboard—so it’s not bad. That’s another good gig—piano solo.

I play every Wednesday night in October from 6-9 p.m. with my Afro-Cuban Jazz Trio at Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro [4346 Bonita Road]. I have a gig with with the Gilbert Castellanos Quintet on October 8 up in Los Angeles. On October 12 I’ve got a gig with the Charlie Arbelaez Quartet at the Seven Grand Whiskey Bar [3054 University]. I’m playing with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz for the play, Chagall, at the Light Box (formerly the White Box) on October 28 at Liberty Station [2590 Truxton Road]. And at Eddie V’s [789 W. Harbor Drive] with the Craig Dawson Jazz Trio on October 16 and 31.

SDT: Thank you for your time.
Irving:
It’s an honor to be doing this for the Troubadour. Thank you very much for your patience with my English. I’m still learning every day.

 

 

 

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