Starweek Magazine

MON DAVID: Master Jazzman

- Susan Isorena-Arcega -
There are wildly conflicting opinions and stories about jazz music today. The U.S. will always claim it as the purest American art form.

Over in Europe, progressive minds excitedly herald a new age in jazz, spurred on by a wave of young artists advocating an adventurous principle of sound clash. Others will continue to harp on jazz’s already marginal cultural status becoming even more marginal.

The constant closure of key venues, the disappearance of jazz instrumentalists from the roster of major music labels, and poor grassroots funding compound the perennial commercial struggle of jazz communities. But amidst cries from purists is the ascendance of jazz vocalists who have suddenly become leading players in the pop music world.

Diana Krall led marketers to the possibilities of jazz as a corporate money-spinner. Norah Jones, by immersing herself in folk, pop, gospel, and country, bravely took on a commercial music scene rife with boy/girl bands, music downloads, and reality TV. Robbie Williams’ rat pack obsession introduced a teenage fanbase to swing, paving the way for Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble. Jazz singers are now hip...and selling.

Cresting the wave of jazz vocalists on a fast track, a small group of jazz proponents in the UK launched a global competition that would bring together the best jazz singers in the world. Their vision was to bring to the public eye a more refreshing version of Simon Cowell’s talent search, but featuring "real" songs by "real" singers, played by "real" musicians. Testing the power of cyberspace, they advertised online, and got 107 entries from 26 different countries. The youngest applicant was 15 years old.

Pruning their list, the organisers of the first-ever London International Jazz Competition for vocalists announced 12 names who were brought to the UK to compete in the semi-final round at the Vortex Jazz Club on March 18. Among them was Mon David–the only Asian to have made the cut–who proudly carried the colors of the Philippines.

The local music community, stirred by guitarist Johnny Alegre’s initial web posting about the competition, rallied around Mon, who was at a disadvantage because the budget outlay for each contestant’s airfare and subsistence was realistic only for those coming from Europe. Optimism, and the Pinoy determination to win, meant that he would need to stay in London for at least three weeks. Knowing full well how expensive living in the British capital could be, a fund-raising campaign was set in motion, led by Mon’s close friends at Thirdline, Butch and Betta Dans, with whom he has worked closely since "time immemorial".

Bituin Escalante, a Thirdline artist, gave Mon her performance slot at the Teatrino. Trilogy, with Marc Lopez on keyboards, Colby de la Calzada on bass, and Koko Bermejo on drums, backed him up for free, with Michael Guevara on saxophone. Mon’s other bosom buddy, Tots Tolentino, who is a leading fixture of the Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino, guested on the show, paying tribute to a true artist who has been patiently waiting in the wings.

The tickets sold, and top businessmen like George Yang and Manny Pangilinan found their way to Mon’s dressing room. In the crowd, fellow vocal stalwarts Dulce, Isay Alvarez, and Robert Seña lent moral support. Even his kabalen from Holy Angel University’s Center for Kapampangan Studies turned out in full force. Crossover 105.1’s plugs worked quite well.

"It was so overwhelming, " Mon humbly confides. "Ganado talaga ako!"

Over on the UK end, the British Council alerted its own network to extend support on the ground. Mishka Adams generously offered Mon and his wife Ann the spare bedroom in her new flat–with joint kitchen forays to boot. Ambassador Edgardo Espiritu and his country team at the Philippine Embassy secured choice seats to both the semis and the finals. Gene Alcantara, TFC/ANC liaison, made sure that he and Embassy press officer Ed Maranan were keyed in.

"And I finally met Alan Bates," enthused Mon. The Candid head honcho had heretofore only been a revered name on the lips of the maverick indie label’s artistic roster.

Mishka’s text message that Mon made it to the world final belied the hard grind that he went through. The Vortex showdown was described as a "storming" semifinal, where judges Ian Shaw, Lee Gibson, Tina May, Ursula Malewski, Pete Churchill and Adam Sieff had a difficult time paring their list to just six due to the high degree of professionalism among the 12 entries who were all superb. In the end, there were two Australians (Dan Barnett and Karlie Bruce), two Americans (Heidi Martin and Alison Wedding), a German (Torsten Goods), and one kayumanggi in a down-the-wire finish.

The imposing Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square could not have seen a more electrifying world final. With top UK jazz instrumentalists Pete Churchill, Jeff Clyne and Trevor Tomkins backing the contestants, Britain’s jazz cognoscenti gathered under one roof to watch and listen as the myriad jazz vocabularies unfolded –a musical mosaic matching the best with the best.

So when Mishka subsequently sent the two-word message "HE WON!" mayhem erupted within the Filipino music community at six in the morning on the 23rd of March.

Mon was still speechless when we got him on the phone. His career, after all, had been a long, uphill climb. He kept faith. And with nothing to lose, he went the only way he could–up.

Word spread quickly, and the UK jazz community has accepted Mon David with open arms. Jagz in Ascot and the 606 Club in Chelsea were packed when Mon took his gigs as part of the prize. The networking was incredible, and the audience roared in appreciation when Mon called Mishka to jam on "Stolen Moments" and "Stormy Weather".

Already, Mon has been booked for a series at Ronnie Scotts this summer. The LIJC organisers, with Malewski herself acting as Mon’s interim agent, has begun sorting an itinerary that will include club gigs and stints at numerous jazz festivals when he returns to the UK.

"High na high talaga kami!" gushed Mon. "Sino ba’ng mag-aakala? I was in this just for the experience. God has been so good!"

Alan Bates is grinning from ear to ear. After all, it was he who plucked Jamie Cullum from his piano bar beginnings and launched him into the recording industry mainstream. Bates had previously waved his magic wand for Alex Wilson, a Latin jazz pianist whom Mon worked with on home shores who, like Cullum, won BBC Best New Jazz Artist. Thanks to Candid’s Philippine office, and the British Council post in Manila, Bates has two sparkling new gems dazzling the UK public.

Back home, things are on the up and up for the Pinoy jazz community. Berklee alumnus Bob Aves, with painstaking support from his wife Grace Nono, has finally realised his dream of translating indigenous Filipino music into critically accepted jazz nuances with an album that will be featured by UK sax legend Courtney Pine on his radio program over BBC.

Vocalists like Sitti and Myra Ruaro are jockeying to fill the void left by Mishka Adams, who was the darling of the public and the musical cashbox until she was plucked to heed the call of outstanding sales in Europe. Mainstream labels have joined the jazz bandwagon, trekking the path that Candid boldly took by its lonesome just a few years back.

Even rockers and hip-hop meisters have sunk their teeth into the genre. With musical verve, they are deflating the pomp of "art" while elevating their musical artistry. Indeed, whether in the Philippines or overseas, more and more artists are imbuing jazz with a creative assault that has embraced freeform and funk with abstract expression and concrete groove.

Deftly pulling the strings, the British Council has been carefully threading the scene–brokering opportunities by bringing artists to work with each other. This May, they will be presenting a top caliber jazz-world music showcase featuring the Antonio Forcione Quartet back-to-back with the Cynthia Alexander Group. Mon David himself will open the show with his prize-winning rendition of "Nature Boy", smoothly underscoring the fact that jazz is now the music of the world.











  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with
no session for state
no session for code
no session for id_token
no session for user