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The unbearable lightness of jazz guitar |

Arts and Culture

The unbearable lightness of jazz guitar

ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana - The Philippine Star

A little bird told me that Johnny Alegre, former jazz guitar enfant terrible of the UP Jazz Ensemble way back when, will be playing one of these nights at the Bar@1951 for the customary blues night, but no definite advisories yet. What the bird did drop by the office was a three-CD package of the latest in the Alegre oeuvre, each representing a distinct stage in the guitarist’s often roller coaster like career for the past decade or so — â€œStories” with his band of veterans and mainstays in Affinity, the world music ensemble Humanfolk, and his set piece trio “3” with Billy Hart and Ron McClure. All under MCA Music/Universal, that should be more than sufficient ground covered.

“Stories” is actually remastered versions of selected tracks from a couple of previous Affinity albums, one with the core group of Colby dela Calzada on bass, Tots Tolentino on saxophone, Koko Bermejo on drums and an assortment of able keyboard players and arrangers not least of whom is Ria Villena; and the other the collaboration with Gerard Salonga’s orchestral ensemble. What results is a mature, balanced offering of cutting-edge jazz from this side of the Pacific, making clear the fact that here is the Filipino musician among the ranks of world beaters.

The song Jazz Hound itself could be semi-autobiographical, with the band settling into a groove that can only be described as jive persistence, endearingly makulit, with its arcs and digressions only to return to a restatement of the bass line theme. East Indies mimics the grandeur of similar orchestral maneuvers, though this one not done in the dark, on the contrary the full-tilt approach has the listener somewhat reeling and dizzy from the rich aural experience. Those are just two sides of the Alegre coin, one a standard jazz crusader, the other an experimental avatar of eight-bar jazz blues.

The second take “Stories” affords to listeners has us rummaging through dustbins of the past, particularly Guardian Angel which for some reason reminds of the late National Artist Nick Joaquin, until we recall it was sometime during Joaquin’s death a decade ago when we first heard the tune. It also suggests how music, or the memory of it, can serve as a guardian angel of sorts. Then there’s The Stranger, perhaps a precursor to Stranger on the Shore by Mishka Adams, but most likely no relation. An amphetamine to the imagination, these runs on jazz guitar.

Of course not enough can be said of the exceptional rhythm section of Bermejo and Dela Calzada, their playing like mercury straddling the g-spot of improvisation, with Alegre grinning all along that dolt’s grin, while the sax-bearing Tolentino swings high and low with his sweet chariot of an instrument. You might be tempted to say that the keyboards here are strictly for coloring, but not so. Elhmir Saison and Joey Quirino imbue the proceedings with lightness and freewheeling mien verging on humor.

And what better way to end these “Stories” than with Beacon Call, implying that the lighthouse cover was no accident of design, and heralds music’s self-assigned task in the dark night of the soul.

Humanfolk on the other hand assembles an all-star cast that includes percussionists Susie Ibarra and Roberto Juan Rodriguez, bass player Cynthia Alexander, pianist Malek Lopez and vocalist Abby Clutario whose voice harks back to the time of Flora Purim and Gayle Moran, but no retro. Alegre’s playing flirts with lounge style acts, but is ultimately saved by pure roundness and wholeness of tone, and as usual the unpredictability that makes him lean more toward John McLaughlin than Gabor Szabo.

Clutario does the inevitable star turn in what could be the title cut, Para sa Tao, where the Filipino alphabet is made into the main lyric, nothing cute about this return to roots and the alibata. Alexander for her part is always present, not only on bass, but also on the ethnic percussion shadings that drive the album forward. The couple Ibarra and Rodriguez provide the necessary ballast, while Lopez dictates mood and tempo.

The trio 3 departs from similar successful set pieces of jazz greats, not least Alegre’s idol Keith Jarrett, as well the template provided by Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life.” I’d heard Alegre essay the title cut Bright Size Life at the old Penguin along Remedios Circle with Dela Calzada and drummer Mar Dizon many moons ago, and the performance of unbearable lightness wins the argument for jazz trios.

Here Alegre’s collaborators are drummer Hart and bassist McClure, and they collectively turn in an uncluttered solid work that allows each player to explore and improvise without straying too far from the mainline. The playing is mature and unrushed, with appropriate tips of the hat and side winding adlibs that never get too convoluted, always keeping an ear out for any slight change of time signature to lift the corpus into hitherto untracked heights, bebop at its best.

Speaking of which — Bebop — the daughter of blues guitarist Jun Lopito has got word out on another tribute night for her dad at Saguijo on June 18, to raise funds for the medical expenses of Lopito who has been diagnosed with hepatitis C. The first was held at Bar@1951 last month that drew in a crowd. Lopito, son of Canuplin, plays the blues like no other, a cigarette burning from the end of the fretboard like incense. Maybe Alegre could play in one of these tribute blues nights for an ailing blues man and fellow guitarist of our generation.

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