Jazzing it up
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2014 - 12:00am

I’ve been writing about the scarcity of live jazz venues in Metro Manila for about 15 years. The clubs come and go, the fads come and go (“bossa nova,” anyone?), and the musicians continue to play musical chairs, journeymen (and journeywomen) who deploy their chops wherever needed.

It’s a relief, then, to see live improv music such as The Bar@1951 normally dishes out. There was the brief-but-glorious run of Noli and the Tangeres, featuring Noli Aurillo on interplanetary guitar, our friend Igan D’Bayan tattooing the groove on bass, and sometimes at the back, friend Jayman Alviar on battery to remind us that jazz comes in many colors and many flavas.

Jazz of a more traditional breed — though with a few modern twists — comes convincingly to life in a couple other venues, as I found out recently, catching The Jireh Calo Project in full flight at 121 on Pasong Tamo Extension (their other gig haunt is Tomato Kick, on Tomas Morato).

At 18, keyboardist/vocalist/arranger Jireh Calo is already a trifecta of talent. Think Esperanza Spalding’s sly jazz vocals mixed with Hiromi Uehara’s command of the keys, and you get an idea where Calo’s coming from. Her group — with Glenn Bondoc on six-string fretless bass, Alviar on drums, and Carlos Jesena on guitar (though recently on temporary leave) — dishes out the real deal: not the schmaltzy cocktail jazz you’re likely to find in local hotel lounges.

They’re apt to open with Joni Mitchell’s Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, as they did at 121, evening out the bop scat-ology into something more resembling a smooth, insinuating hip-hop rap. The grooves are ultra-deep, and Calo uses her naturally low register to suggest someone quite a bit older than her years. (Comparisons can be made to Up Dharma Down’s Armi Millare, as my wife points out.)

Or they may break down Daft Punk’s Something About Us, turning it into a bumptious torch ballad. Calo, a graduate of British School Manila, moved from keyboards in her sister Nicole’s band, Mann Atti, to jamming with bassist Bondoc, who has some classical gas in his past as well (having studied classical guitar and piano); they pulled in Alviar, a frequent bandmate of Bondoc’s, to provide the splash and awe on percussion. A new jazz entity was born.

Arranging seems to be Calo’s thing. At 121, on their semi-regular Thursday night gig, Everything But The Girl’s Love Is Here Where I Live turns up as a sublime blast from the ’80s past; Michael Jackson gets resurrected as a jazzman; they delve into a funky Butterfly by Herbie Hancock, then, just when you think smooth jazz is their main strength, they’ll lay out some serious chops, taking on Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia.

Her mom — also a singer, pianist and composer — may have inspired Calo to perform at an early age. “I started performing onstage at age two and tinkering around the piano at six,” she says, “but I only seriously got into music when I fell in love with jazz at 14 after listening to Oscar Peterson playing the jazz standard Tenderly.” She says her approach to arranging is “taking old songs and modernizing them or fusing them with other genres.”

Don’t underestimate this 18-year-old. She knows what she wants. We ask Alviar who selects their material. “Jireh does,” he answers with no hesitation. Then he wryly adds, “She doesn’t say, ‘Do you want to play...?’ She says, ‘This is what we’re playing.’”

Jireh agrees. “When I hear something that perks my ears up, automatically the question that comes up in my head is, ‘Why not do this with the band?’ Sometimes I just like a song so much it’s no longer a question; it’s more of, ‘We’re definitely gonna do this.’”

And that firm direction is what shapes this band into something much sharper than a bunch of jazzers simply jamming out. Calo’s apt to stop a song mid-rehearsal, going over a syncopated riff again and again until it becomes second nature.

Calo has another ace up her sleeve: she plans to attend Berklee School of Music in Boston, when time and funds permit. “I’m deferred a year,” she points out with a smile that reminds you she’s only 18. “This is a gap year, so we have time to play out.”

And that means the jazz scene in Metro Manila just got a little more interesting.

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