Starweek Magazine

In search of Philippine jazz

Michele T. Logarta - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The documentary Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines by Richie Quirino and Collis Davis begins with the question: Is there such a thing as Philippine jazz or Pinoy jazz? And the answer, of course, is yes, there is.

According to the documentary, based on Richie Quirino’s award winning book Pinoy Jazz Traditions, Filipinos who jumped the Spanish galleon ships were the first Filipinos to come face to face with jazz when they found their way to New Orleans – where jazz music was just taking shape as ragtime, blues, brass and other musical traditions collided and eventually fused to take different new forms.

Later, Filipinos had their first taste of jazz when African-American soldiers landed in the Philippines to fight a war against the Spaniards. Along with guns and rifles, these soldiers probably had harmonicas in their pockets. And with Americans finally settling in for the long haul in peacetime Philippines, jazz had found a new home and ever since, Filipinos have appropriated this American music form and made it their own.

“Filipinos love everything that came from America... including jazz. Ever since jazz was introduced to the Philippines, it had been highly regarded by Philippine musicians of every generation; musicians who have faithfully duplicated every jazz style that emerged in America to this day,” says musician Bob Aves, while noting that “it fell short of encouraging musicians to explore outside of the mainstream jazz idiom.”

For Aves, the quest for his own brand of jazz has been a journey of experimentation and discovery.

Aves is a guitarist, composer, arranger and producer. With long-time collaborator Grace Nono, he co-founded Tao Music that specializes in traditional and contemporary Philippine music and traditions. He has performed in many international music festivals with Nono and their world music band.

A Composition graduate of the Berklee School of Music where he was once called “Mr. Bop,” Aves’ music is constantly evolving.

“It is still a must for aspiring jazz musicians to learn their jazz foundations from the original source, American mainstream jazz,” Aves says. “I was fortunate to get my jazz education in Berklee, and although I moved on from my basic western foundation, the tools I’ve learned provided me a solid starting point to the next step of my journey into the unknown.”

Listening to his work, bop would not be the word that would come to mind.

His Inner Country released in 2000 was a “great jazz fusion album,” Aves says. “Although it had more Philippine instruments incorporated into the pieces than I’ve ever done before, in the end, it had little to do with the Philippines. They were compositions in the American jazz fusion style colored with Philippine ethnic instruments. So, as far as my quest to create our own distinct Philippine jazz, I was back on the drawing board.”

Collaborating with Nono and a band of musicians that had members from Kalinga and Mindanao pointed him in the right direction.

“The pieces we did were all based on traditional music fused with modern arrangements... it’s world music,” Aves says. “This was a successful musical collaboration and our group saw many performances all over the world. It was during this time that I was absorbing the traditional music of Maguindanao first hand and developing ideas on the structure of my elusive Philippine jazz.”

Aves released Translating the Gongs in 2006. Writer Phillip Vallin described the album as “music conceived as a dialogue between his as well as the influences inevitably brought by the Philippine colonial history, Spanish and American jazz sensibilities.” Translating the Gongs, according to Vallin, is a marvelous work, and to Angel Peña, considered a legend in Philippine jazz, it achieves what he thought impossible – fusing the kulintang with jazz.

“I worked with Maguindanao artists for over four years and I came to a certain level of understanding their music necessary to create this fusion,” Aves points out. “The common mistake that most musicians have (including me in Inner Country) was the myth that we can just take these traditional instruments, start beating them and it’s good enough for ‘ethnic’.”

Translating the Gongs could very well be a milestone in Aves’ career, marking a completely different creative path from what he was on when he made Inner Country. The two albums, says Aves, are worlds apart. Although he confesses to having gone overboard with the Maguindanao elements in this album, which might make the music not exactly easy listening, Aves considers it a triumph in establishing a distinct Philippine jazz identity.

This month, Aves is launching his latest album Out of Tradition at the 2nd CCP International Jazz Festival on Sept. 17-22 at various venues of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

In Out of Tradition, Aves says, he adopted a more universal approach in his melodies and harmonies. While Translating the Gongs focused on Maguindanao music, Aves’ new album explores traditional pan-Philippine gong practices (agong and dabakan) that are practiced throughout the South, Palawan and some parts of the Visayas. The result, he says, is a more balanced fusion and much easier to listen to.

Aves will be one of the 100 artists and 15 bands from the Philippines, US, Europe and Asia who will perform at the 2nd CCP International Jazz Festival. The six-day event offers performances of jazz music in all its styles, from big band, swing, blues, fusion and experimental, and workshops and lectures as well.

“The global attraction of jazz has reached a wide spectrum of enthusiasts including Asia, where its own brand of Eastern and ethnic music seems to fuse well with its style,” CCP president Raul Sunico says. “Through the Festival, CCP hopes to bring the Philippines into the mainstream of global jazz activity and make it a legitimate and recognized venue for international jazz festivals.”

Aves’ performance at the CCP International Jazz Festival will be his first.

“It would be an honor to present my Philippine jazz in this event. I’ll be bringing in a seven-piece group and will perform all the pieces of my new album,” says Aves. “In the end though, this is still jazz and in my opinion, whatever I do should still provide space for the different styles of jazz to co-exist, including bop. But big difference is, we can speak our own language here, and consequently contribute our color to the universality of jazz.”

The 2nd CCP International Jazz Festival, Sunico says, is a recognition of the jazz genre as a major style of musical creativity through improvisation as well as the distinct theories in its harmonic, scalar, and rhythmic components that are both appealing and inviting to the listener.


Tickets available at the CCP Box Office (832-3704). For information, visit the CCP website www.culturalcenter.gov.ph


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