Jazz apologies
THE OUTSIDER - Erwin T. Romulo () - March 3, 2006 - 12:00am
If you were to ask the six-year old me to define "jazz", he’d probably only say that it was that tune they’d always play during the English-language weather reports (no pun intended). If you asked the 13-year-old me, he’d probably say, Kenny G. Even if you asked a decade later, that me would know about Miles Davis, John Coltrane and John McLaughlin but he’d still derisively sneer at the "light jazz" being played ad nauseam at that now happily-defunct version of 88.3. No doubt, those cats had chops but I needed that sense of danger that any rock n’ roll animal craves in their musical diet. In a span of two years in college, I’d gone from listening to The Smiths to Napalm Death, the Sex Pistols to ABBA. (Hey, this was way before it became retro chic and being caught whistling Mamma Mia was tantamount to ritual seppuku.) Jazz conjured up too many images of Zalman King movies: porn safe enough to display openly on laser disc rental shops. I like my entertainment rude. Very. (That’s why I preferred Oasis to Blur at the height of Britpop.)

In Kurt Vonne-gut’s Cat’s Cradle, the end of the world is described as thus: "There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The Earth was locked up tight." This was the result of a laboratory-prod-uced crystalline substance called ice-nine, a "single chip of which can freeze all the water in the world, permanently." Somehow the passage describes my unease upon meeting jazz disciples and maybe waking up to a world where we could only hear jazz. Every note was dissected with an obsessive compulsiveness that even an OCD sufferer like myself could not sympat-hize with. For a genre that took pride for freedom of expression, it seemed to me at the time that to like jazz you gotta listen to the same things, go gaga over odd time-signatures and never make a mistake. No doubt jazz was potent stuff – much like Vonnegut’s fiction – but it seemed like if it spread the way these geeks preferred it looked like a desolate place indeed.

Then, as if just to prove me wrong, a band like the Radioactive Sago Project arrived and completely changed everything in the local music scene. Their early live performances were snotty and brash as they melded everything from…well, just everything. Famously, they also played jazz and it wasn’t the kind you’d expect to hear from any cocktail lounge in Metro Manila. I was working for a music magazine at the time and I went straight to my editor and grabbed him by the lapels. I told him we got to feature this band, we must! He said he’d think about it and eventually declined. (Since then, they’ve run articles about them; it would’ve been a nice ironic twist for their piece if they actually put the band on the cover at one time or another but the reality isn’t that neat.)

Now, things are different. Rock n’ roll – at least its popular face – is boring. Probably the only band on the MYX charts I don’t hate (and, in fact, am desperately in love with) is the Itchyworms – although I haven’t watched enough TV lately to check if they’re still in there. Thankfully, we’ve seen the mish-mashing of genres pioneered by RSP in bands like Drip, Nyko Maca, Sound, Ciudad, Caliph8, Rubber Inc. and That Epic Reggae Set to name but a few that makes music the most interesting it’s ever been. (None of which thankfully sound the least bit like each other.)

How about jazz? My resistance gradually eroded after a few things: hearing an EP by Wahijuara, reading an article by Igan D’ Bayan and – finally – watching the jazz outfit Affinity live. Their leader Johnny Alegre was kind enough to give me a copy of their debut CD. He was such a nice person that it broke my heart to tell him that I found it "too clean" and that I felt that something was lost in translation. There was no doubt about the talent of the players but it was a bit underwhelming and polished. However, being witness to a recent gig by the band at ’70s Bistro, I am now a believer. This was a no-nonsense pure jazz experience that demanded my attention. It had a physical effect on me as well as mental, making me feel restless and anxious just waiting for the next note from Johnny and the other musicians, like a Cornell Woolrich story where you’re just waiting to see if there’s a happy ending. In my opinion, Affinity might perhaps be the most dangerous band in the country at the moment.

Some years back, there was an exhibition of drawings by John Lennon at the Intercon in Makati. I only remember one very clearly. It was a comic depicting John answering the question if he liked jazz. His retort was, "I’ve been running away from jazz all my life." As I’ve indicated, I was sympathetic to the sentiment at the time. However, now, I feel like I’ve been swept up by a tide of a rich musical history being reinvented constantly every gig by these enormously talented musicians. I’m just beginning to get my feet wet.

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