Nestor Torres and Corey Allen explore the music, culture and politics of the Dominican Republic
About five years ago, the keyboardist, arranger and educator Corey Allen reconnected with noted Latin jazz flutist Nestor Torres in the Dominican Republic, where Allen had established a jazz education program. Allen had a large scale project in mind which would incorporate a jazz big band with a Dominican rhythm section with Torres’ flute in front. The suite would be inspired not only by the music of great arrangers like Duke Ellington and Oliver Nelson, but also by the music and culture, and even politics, of the Dominican Republic, the Maine-born Allen's adopted homeland. Torres immediately committed to the project, which he called “one of the most important recorded works in my career.” Recorded during and after the pandemic, the resulting album, Dominican Suite, was recently released on the Nine-PM label. WBGO’s Bobby Sanabria talked with his fellow Puerto Rico native Torres and fellow Berklee alum Allen about this ambitious and creative project.
Watch their conversation here:
Bobby Sanabria: Was the flute the first instrument that you fell in love with? I know you play percussion too. Anybody who's from the Caribbean plays percussion. But was the flute your voice when you were a child, or was it the piano first and then the flute?
Nestor Torres: No, the flute was not my first voice. It was drums, actually. My father was a musician and the nephew of a very famous iconic figure Ruth Fernandez. I am very privileged that there's a bit of a lineage. He was Nestor Ramon and he played the piano, the vibraphone, and the organ, the C3, which was a church version of the B3 organ. He played by ear. He never learned to read music, but he was one of the finest musicians. As part of that, I have always grown up with music. Starting out, banging pots and pans and playing with my cousins. When I was five years old, Santa Claus brought me a small but professional Ludwig drum set. From the time I was five until I was about 16 or 17, I was playing the drums. My cousins and I, being contemporaries, graduated elementary school and they decided to go to the Escuela Libre de Música once we entered middle school. And I did not want to get left out. If they're going to go to the school, then I'll go too. But when it came down to the form that you filled out to join the school, the question was: What instrument did you want to learn?
I did not see learning the drums as a musical instrument. I was thinking melody and I was thinking harmony, but at the same time, my father was a pianist. But the piano was his. As a child of a musician, I was very used to being around saxophone and trumpets. None of those instruments held a kind of a particular charm or interest to me. Then I looked at the blackboard and said, “Oh, there's a picture of a flute.” That triggered two thoughts. One of the Symphony Orchestra of Puerto Rico visiting the West Coast of the island at some point, and them doing a version of Peter and the Wolf.
My mom at the time was one of the founding members of the Asociación de ‘Esposas de Músicos’, Association of Musician’s Wives. She went to visit one of the members. I was nine. When we went to the house, the lady's husband was this older gentleman wearing an undershirt. I remember there was just a light bulb above him and a tiny little music stand and him practicing the flute.
I thought of the symphony. I thought of that man. “Man, I'll play the flute.” My father being a musician, when I told him I wanted to play flute, he said, “Son, what are, what are you doing? If you're gonna play the flute, you're gonna have to learn clarinet and the saxophone as a reed man. I said, “Well, no, I want to play the flute.” He said, “If you want to play, then you have to be the best and you have to study.” He wanted me to really pursue the education that he didn't get. It was he who then introduced me to Herbie Mann, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Cuban charanga music and others. That's how it started. That was the beginning of my relationship with the flute.
Do you remember the first professional gig you ever did and got paid for?
Nestor Torres: I remember that my first professional gig was as a drummer playing in a band called Love Portion Number Nine. You know, remember that song “Love Potion Number Nine”? Mongo Santamaria did a version of that and we would play Mongo's version. My cousins painted the van Love Portion Number Nine. That was the name of the band at the time. I think it was some sort of a Sweet 16 party and the whole band charged like a hundred bucks. I think my first paying gig paid something like $10 or something. I was 14 or 15.
Corey, how did you get to the Dominican Republic? Was it when I saw you at the festival there?
Corey Allen: I think it was about a year before I saw you in the Dominican Republic. I played with Chuck Mangione a year or two before that in Santo Domingo with the local symphony. The promoter of that show, Silvestre Demoya, did a great job. We became friends and maintained contact over the next few years. He said, “Look, would you be interested in coming down here to do about a five or six-week long masterclass or program for arranging, particularly harmony theory and vocal arranging?” I had done a lot of vocal arranging for people including the Manhattan Transfer and so I had some kind of credibility in that world. They said, “Come down and do this thing and we'll get it paid for through a joint relationship with the Dominican government and the American government.
I came down to Santo Domingo and I worked here for five or six weeks. That whole thing was very successful. There were a lot of musicians now that have graduated from Berklee and other prestigious universities that were my students when they were 15 or so. This was 2010. The university saw that there was a market and they saw that there was a potential for this to be successful financially. They were licensed to offer an arts program and a music program. They dusted off that clause in their contract with the government and said, “Let's start a music school and you run it.”
I wrote the curriculum for the school. I'm the director of the school and a lot of it has to do with the curriculum development in all areas. Silvestre is the director of operations. Being Dominican and knowing how Dominican law works and all the rest of it, he's perfect for that. He handles more of the business side of the school. We've been successful. We opened in 2016 and so we'll be celebrating eight years in January.
That’s fantastic how one person's vision and foresight can make incredible changes happen. Because I've seen it with the young Dominican musicians coming out from your program and others that have gone to our alma mater Berklee not only from the Dominican Republic, but from all of Latin America. I think I did an interview in Jazz Times 20 years ago and they asked me, “What do you think the future of jazz is?” And I said, “It’s simple, Latin America.”
Corey Allen: It's an interesting situation. The Caribbean in general has its own tradition of musical tradition, folkloric tradition and otherwise. Each island has a different take on it. I think why Nestor and I hit it off both personally and musically is that even though we're from very different backgrounds, we both have classical music as a foundation. Then from that, I gravitated naturally toward the jazz idiom and the blues, which I happen to love. But it was always grounded. I've always felt sort of the outsider no matter what, because the jazz guys “He plays too much blues.” And the blues guys loved me because I could play jazz and I had some technique. I've been able to be in the funk world or even in the house music world. I got a call from this guy and he says, “I want you to play keyboards on this house thing.” I said, “You realize I'm a middle-aged white guy, right?” He said, “Yes, so am I.”
In regard to my relationship with Nestor, I think he encapsulates this whole idea of saying, “I'm gonna bring my tradition and put it over here.” And the results are beautiful. The Dominican Suite was really a result of he and I meeting at a festival in the Dominican Republic, and him giving me some sage advice, basically encouraging me to go stronger in that direction that I just told you. Mix it up and put these two things together and if you do it in the right way, people are going to like it and they seem to.
Nestor, when did you first meet Corey?
Nestor Torres: I believe it was about seven years ago at the Latin Jazz Festival there. A fellow brought brought us to some venue which was like an arena. There was a nice lineup and Corey was part of the lineup as well. That's when we met. People were having dinner the night before and Corey expressed his concern that his style of music was not very compatible with the Dominican tastes. I said, “For heaven's sakes, do not change your style. Just reinterpret the Latin American repertoire the way that you do.” Talk about sophistication, finesse and richness. To me Corey is like Nelson Riddle meets Claus Ogerman. It’s an element of sophistication that is just next level.
I've been working for over a dozen years on this project called NeoDance. It's a fascinating mixture of neo tango with different rhythms, one of them being merengue. I had invited Johnny Ventura to be our guest artist in this choreographic project, which has not been released. But when Johnny passed away, as a tribute, we released a video of the song. That brought about tremendous attention. I went to Dominican Republic to talk about it for a celebration of Johnny's life. That's when Corey and I reconnected. It was crazy because my schedule was so tight, we could only meet like for like 15 minutes. You [Corey] were so gracious to come to my hotel. We met in the lobby and then you talked about the project and I said, “Okay, so let's go ahead and do it.” Little did I know that Dominican Suite would prove to be one of the most important recorded works in my career.
I'm so proud of this work and I'm so proud of being able to work with Corey. He pushed me, very openly, and made me very uncomfortable. As you know, when we're creating it is to be put in an uncomfortable situation with someone that you respect and that you trust completely. As an artist and musician, it's a really good thing. It shows in the production. Thank you for that, Corey. We ended up discovering that what really bonded us together is this mutual love and passion for Dominican people, their culture and their land.
What's fascinating to me with this new project is it’s a large ensemble piece with various movements. You can listen to the individual pieces in and of themselves. They stand alone, but they work as one entire whole, starting from beginning to the very end. All of the writing is fabulous. There is some gorgeous string work that Corey has done, giving Nestor a beautiful platform for his flute work. How did you approach that in terms of framing the music and thinking of Nester as the principal soloist on this project?
Corey Allen: I was thinking of Nester as the principal soloist on this project. I wrote it essentially for him, for his voice. I can't think of another flute player that I would want to do this, to the point where if he had said, “No, I can't do it” or “I don't want to do it” or “I don't have time to do it,” I probably would've changed to do a different instrument.
Nestor, I'm curious when he approached you, did you say to yourself, “Wait a minute, Dominican music, that's the saxophone. How's the flute going to fit in that?” Or did you say, “Let’s go.”
Nestor Torres: No, it was not that at all. In retrospect my work has been influenced by Dominican music. Through the process of sharing and promoting the record, it dawned on me that when I speak of my father and Cuban music as my main influences. I will always focus on that. It turns out that when I look back, the very first real instruments that I had my hands on, my cousins and I, were ones my uncles would bring from Latin America and Santo Domingo. So Dominican music and culture has been so deeply ingrained since my very early childhood.
I can think of at least two songs. One of them called “Biscayne” that I did in my record Dance of the Phoenix in the early ‘90s, and 10 years later on the Latin Grammy-winning CD This Side of Paradise. This is called “No Te Enamores.” I feel very comfortable with Dominican music.
What I found challenging was the fact that it would be in the context of big band more so than the flute being a leading voice within the Dominican music or Dominican rhythm. But with the flute as a leading voice within the context of a big band…although I have big band arrangements in my repertoire, it was challenging. Corey's trusting me with this. What an amazing opportunity to work with an artist of his caliber. Plus, I get to go to Santo Domingo. For the recording he said, “You could come here or we could do it in Miami.” I said, “No, I need to be in Santo Domingo.”
As it turns out, it was a very correct decision because the folks that are listening and watching us may not know this, but a lot of music today is done remotely. You start with basic tracks, with the computerized sequence tracks. Then you send it to the drummer, then you send it to the horn player, then you send it to another. Very rarely do you have that kind of interaction with the studio. I really felt instinctively that, in addition to my love of being in Santo Domingo, I was going to want to work with Corey directly.
Boy, was I right on that. It was that synergy of us just exchanging and him giving me the direction. Usually, I do my own thing. He was being very specific. “No, you must do this.” And for me to surrender and, in the process of that, discover new ways of expressing, there are some improvisations that are already written and that was challenging. It was just a phenomenal process that required us to really be together for that exchange.
Listen to “Hija del Caribe” here:
I'm assuming you got to work with the musicians themselves, your fellow colleagues in the Dominican Republic, in the studio as well. Did you get to work with the rhythm section there or were the rhythm tracks already done?
Nestor Torres: The complexity of this production lies with the fact that you have three seemingly incongruent elements put together. The merengue classical from Papa Molina’s days was with the sense of with the big band arrangement, but harmonically combining merengue with bebop, which is what he did, that's a departure. And so a very legitimate Dominican rhythm section led by the percussionist “Chocolate,” that needed to be very specific.
Corey has been very respectful and very faithful to the roots of what that is. That in itself required the musicians to be in the studio and for him to work with them. There was that interaction that he engaged in and then putting together their horn arrangements and everything. It was layered. By the time that I was able to come into the production, Corey had already done a phenomenal job in putting it all together. I did not have the opportunity to work directly with them, but the rhythm section informed me so much and the nuances and the subtleties of it… Because I'm familiar with the language it was just a relaxing feel. It felt very much that live kind of a vibe to it.
Corey Allen: From a producer's point of view, I wanted to use a Dominican rhythm section because I knew that they would understand the music better than another rhythm section. That's their music and they own it. I wanted to capitalize on that. We used Guy Frometa and Joel Taylor on drums; Pengbian Sang on bass and Federico Mendez on guitar. Janina Rosado on piano and Juan de la Cruz (Chocolate) on percussion. Janina and Chocolate are both from Juan Luis Guerra’s band. She played some piano. I played some piano. It was great right from the beginning. It was a wonderful cultural mix, but the essence of Dominican music, I wanted to be played by Dominicans.
In terms of the horns, just because COVID was still playing a role in the world, it was easier to get people to do it kind of in isolation. They were still kind of skittish about getting together as a section. Sandy Gabriel, Doug Webb, Fiete Felsch and Brian Scanlon, who plays in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, played the saxophones and other woodwinds. Ernesto Nunez, who also plays with Juan Luis Guerra, played trumpets and flugelhorns. It was a big production and, as Nestor said, it was layered.
But I think not only having to do with the practicalities of making that work, but also where Nestor is so comfortable and does understand the music, I think that he kind of rode on top of that wave and when he felt that the rhythm section was going this way or that way, he altered his playing and played something that was appropriate. So it did get, even though it was prerecorded, a live sort of feeling out of it. And each take was different.
One of the things that you explored on this album also are other rhythms that are not familiar to most people outside of Dominican culture like mangulina. Describe that rhythm for us a little bit.
Corey Allen: I'll do the first half. Nestor, you do the second half. Basically, there’s a story that I created to tie the entire Dominican Suite together. And the last part of the story is a courtship and mangulina is a dance of courtship. I took the idea of this mangulina and it is somewhat autobiographical in that I married a Dominican girl and so that was part of that courtship story. The piece basically is a demonstration of the mangulina and blues, representing the gringo 50% of that equation. I was influenced, I'd have to say, by Brubeck, the “Blue Rondo a la Turk” where he goes back and forth between the Blue Rondo bit and the blues bit. I took that idea and made it Dominican.
Would you describe for the lay person the rhythm as almost like an Africanized waltz.
Corey Allen: It is in three and it is a sense where the the girl is kind of standoffish. She's kind of flailing her dress around, but she's kind of saying, “Okay, if you really want me, then you have to earn this.” And the guy kind of circles her with his hands behind his back. That's the big part of the dance. I took some liberties with the rhythm, obviously the blues part and used the 12-bar blues form. It's an interaction between the two cultures.
It's a beautiful fusion. There's another piece here that, as soon as I saw the title, I kind of knew what it was about right away, but I just want to confirm this. The tune “Las Mariposas,” which I'm assuming is dedicated to the Mirabal sisters. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the Mirabal sisters?
Nestor Torres: Historically, one of the most difficult and cruelest dictatorships in Latin America happened in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. It is hard to comprehend today the level of absolute power that this man had. He owned all the industries, everything in the Dominican Republic. It was all about him. We have heard of cruel regimes and oppression of the people and assassinations. This individual was particularly deviant and perverse. He would take any woman he wanted, the wife of his generals, the daughter of whoever. He was a pretty horrible guy. On a human level, this guy was the cruelest of the cruel.
The Mirabal sisters were educated and they stood up against him. Three out of the four sisters took a stand. One of them stayed behind the scenes for specific reasons, not because she didn't believe in it. She's still alive. The three sisters were taken, tortured, raped, and killed by the Trujillo regime. They became martyrs of a movement to take down Trujillo and eventually he was killed.
We have this example of these very courageous women who gave their lives for the sake of the country, so much so that UNESCO made November 25th a day against violence against women. It was inspired by them. Historically it is a very powerful chapter or episode not just in Dominican history, but in human history. It shows the power, the courage and the resilience of women.
I’ll let Corey speak about the musical aspect of it and the unbelievably moving performance of this song. that just beyond description. You have to hear how Maridalia Hernandez conveys the spirit of the essence of these women. I was speaking with Maridalia about this. We talked about how the lyrics of the song are about what they did to our sisters. But from a broader perspective, it is the plight of women. It's almost an autobiographical component to what women go through in this patriarchal society.
I'm going to stop there because I can go real deep into that rabbit's hole, but it is to me one of the highlights. My performance there is just as part of the ensemble. I do not improvise. I'm offering a relatively amenable supportive role, but it's really my favorite.
Listen to “Las Mariposas” here:
I put that cut on and I was almost brought to tears. Corey plays beautifully on electric piano. Most people, when you mention Corey's name, talk about his arranging skills or his compositional skills. But he is a fabulous jazz soloist as well. I'm so glad that you featured yourself on this piece in bolero style, and the vocalist featured is Maridalia Hernandez. One of the great things about this piece is that the majority of the album is built upon the bedrock of the big band tradition. But on this piece is a showcase for strings and your beautiful command of string arranging. Corey, talk about how you framed the piece and about who wrote the lyrics.
Corey Allen: The lyrics were written by a dear friend of mine, Carol Welsman, a great jazz piano player and singer from Canada. I produced a record for her in New York with Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash and Wallace Roney. It was one of the last things he [Roney] did. That was the first time that Carol and I worked together in that producer and artist capacity. I asked her to write this piece for me. The music was written really with Ellington in mind. I told her what I had in mind as far as the mood of the piece. She wrote these beautiful lyrics in English. The story of the Mariposas really got under my skin. I can't imagine it if you have four daughters and three of them are murdered. As Nestor said, on the human side, it's quite a story. I didn't want it in English. I wanted it in in Spanish. I wanted to address it to a Dominican audience. I spoke with Maridalia and Carol and I said, “Do you mind if Maridalia kind of reworks the lyrics in Spanish to subtly address what happened with the Las Mariposas?” Carol said, “No, that’s fine.” Then Maridalia took over and wrote these gut-wrenching lyrics. You said it nearly brought you to tears. It did bring all of us to tears when she did it in the studio as she was recording. We're all crying. It was just amazingly powerful.