Drummer, bandleader, composer, and night club owner Fortino Contreras González was born into a musical family in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico on April 3, 1924. Contreras formed his first band, Cadetes del Swing, at the tender age of 15 and made his professional debut with Luis Alcaraz's Latin swing orchestra in the early '50s. During this period he also played with fellow Mexican jazz maverick Juan García Esquivel. In 1954 Contreras was a leading player in the first modern jazz recordings in his home country, which were captured on the Jazz en Mexico compilation. It was clear from his debut, however, 1953's Volado por los Merengues (which had been musically inspired by a trip to the Dominican Republic), that Contreras was never going to be a straight-ahead jazzer.
In 1957 Contreras formed the first iteration of his Quartet, the recording and touring unit that would persist to the present day. The subsequent stream of releases reflected an almost bewildering range of influences as Contreras strove to meld jazz with various Latin musical forms, including Mesoamerican religious choral chants and instrumentation, lounge, waltz, psychedelia, and styles from every corner of the globe (especially India, Turkey, and Egypt) reflecting Contreras’ globe-trotting itinerary. Key albums include Jazz Tropical (1962), Jazz Ballet (1963), and Misa en Jazz (1966). Highlights from Contreras’ diverse and hard-to-source catalog were expertly compiled on the U.K. label Jazzman’s compilation, El Jazz Mexicano de Tino Contreras (2011). Despite his imaginative and extravagant experimentation, Contreras remained a champion of the jazz form in Mexico. He won the National Festival of Jazz award every year between 1959 and 1966, and he has taught and run clubs in his homeland. Now in his nineties, Contreras continues to play, record, and receive recognition for his contribution to Mexican jazz and beyond. ~ Matthew Garbutt