David Torkanowsky has a reputation as a wild man onstage, but he is a dedicated musician who takes his work seriously. Of all the pianists in New Orleans, he has charted one of the most diverse careers. Torkanowsky is best known as a jazz player, performing with everyone from his own group Astral Project to Dianne Reeves. But Torkanowsky also has had gigs with everyone from The Meters and Earl King to Zachary Richard and Shane Theriot.
His latest project, Fleur Debris, is an all-star band that plays, in Torkanowsky's words, "music that was born of the earth of this town; that has certain dynamics to it that could be an undeniable backbone to contemporary American improvisatory music. It's what New Orleans is all about, the conversation between the European and the African."
Fleur Debris has had several different lineups, and the current one includes drummer Taron Lockett, famed for his work with Erykah Badu, guitarist Will Bernard, DJ Raymond on bass and native New Orleanian and Grammy Award-winner Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Fender Rhodes piano. How does Torkanowsky choose the musicians he plays with? "I remember David Lastie telling me, 'If you keep fast company, you get fast,'" he says. "So I try to hire the most telling and intriguing musicians that I can. The music we're playing requires a certain ease with improvisation."
Anyone who expects the group to play light jazz will be surprised.
"If jazz implies that it's 'tink tink a tink,' this is not that," Torkanaowsky says. "It's African-American improvisational music. We play everything from James Black music to Tony Dagradi music to Nicholas Payton music to David Torkanowsky music." Much of that type of music maintains its complexity and sophistication without losing the dance element and rhythmic drive, and every member of the band has the chops and soul to pull it off.
"It's open-form improvisation," Torkanowsky says. "The sincerity that the musicians bring to the music is what makes it special."