On The Road With The Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet
Though it was only a 12-hour flight from Singapore to London, for Singaporean organist/pianist Jeremy Monteiro, Philippine tenor saxophonist Tots Tolentino, Hong Kong guitarist Eugene Pao and Thai drummer Chanutr Techatana-nanwho together make up the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartetthe journey has, in some ways, been a much longer one; you could say it's a journey that began in 1977, when Monteiro began gigging professionally. London represented a significant milestone for all these musicians.
The four musicians grinned broadly as they posed for a photo outside Pizza Express on Dean Street, and little wonder. It may seem like a normal tourist thing for them to do, but Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho is a hallowed London jazz venue, with only Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club and the The Bull's Head serving up jazzboth since 1959for longer. That the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet was invited to perform at Pizza Express as part of the the London Jazz festival was significant on two levels; firstly, this was the band's first performance at a major international jazz festival, and secondly, because it may well represent the first ever pan-Asian ensemble in the 20 years of the London Jazz Festival.
All About Jazz traveled for two weeks with the AJASPQ on its Asian-European tour, from rehearsals, workshops and warm-up gigs in Singapore to the band's first major international jazz festivalthe London Jazz Festivaland on to France for a concert in Segré. Along the way Monteiro, Pao, Tolentino and Techatana-nanalso known as Hongshared their stories and experiences, and in the process threw some light on jazz in Asia and the challenges that Asian jazz musicians face, both at home and abroad.
- Perceptions of Asian Jazz/All-Stars Pedigree
- Singapore Rehearsals
- Asian Jazz All-Stars/Teramasu Hino
- Singapore Workshop/Unequal Opportunities
- Jazz Education in Asia
- London Jazz Festival Workshop and Gig
- Pianos and Formula One Technology
- Organ Donor at Ronnie Scott's
- Pink Pianos/Jazz Purity
- France, Workshop and Gig
When thinking of Asian jazz musicians it's usually Japanese and Korean names that spring to mind. Thai, Philippine, Hong Kong and Singaporean names aren't on most peoples' list at all. Most American and European jazz fans would struggle to name a single jazz musician from any of these four countries, something that's not entirely surprising given that there aren't many professional jazz musicians emanating from these four corners of Asia. However, when it comes to quality, the four members of the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet can cut it with the best.
If American and European jazz musicians complain of finding it tough to get gigs these days, then the challenge is even greater for Asian jazz musicians, especially for gigs abroad. Though Asia seems to be opening its doors to visiting jazz musicians from America and Europe the reverse doesn't seem to be true. At Borneo Jazz in May, Agus Setiawan of Indonesian jazz advocacy organization Wartajazz.com spoke of the challenges facing Asian jazz musicians, in light of his experience at Jazzahead! 2012 in Bremen: "There was a lot of interest from people wishing to bring bands to Indonesia and Asia in general," he told me, "but there wasn't very much interest shown in bringing Asian bands to Europe. It doesn't work both ways. Maybe they don't think the quality of jazz musicians is high enough here."
When I put this idea to Monteiro, he was more or less in line with Setiawan's observation about the imbalance in opportunities: "It's still as difficult as ever," he said. "From America to Asia there's a highway but from here to there there's a footpath." As for the suggestion that the "footpath" may be because American and European jazz promoters consider Asian jazz musicians to be inferior, Monteiro said: "I used to feel the draft, especially from American musicians," said Monteiro, "but that has changed a lot. These days there are great Israeli jazz musicians, great European and great Asian jazz musicians. This generation has grown up much more integrated than their parents or their grandparents. I think [saxophonist] Michael Brecker was the one who tore down a lot of the negativity surrounding non-black Americans playing jazz. When he came along it was impossible for anyone to say a white musician can't play jazz."
Monteiro has long had the chops to play with the very best. He used to be the leader and pianist in a trio with two of Chicago's finest, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, a trio he remembers with great fondness: "Redd and Eldee used to make me feel 50 and black," Monteiro said smiling broadly. However, he recalls how the question of so-called jazz ownership was the cause of some friction between himself and saxophonist John Stubblefield, who along with guitarist O'Donel Levy was added to the trio for a gig in 1988: "It almost came to blows," explained Monteiro, "just as we were about to go on stage." This wasn't just another gig either; this was the Montreux Jazz Festival. "Our manager, Stephen Francis, stepped between us," Monteiro continued. "It was more to do with the tensions that rear up from time to time in any band."
Whatever the reasons behind the tension, the adrenaline pumping worked in a positive manner as the quintet gave a remarkable performance, captured on Monteiro, Young & Holt, Live at Montreux (WEA, 1989) and reissued on Jazznote in 2011 with a DVD. Montreux Jazz Festival director Claude Nobs described the concert at the time as "an unforgettable set which will remain a classic concert of the first twenty-two years of Montreux."
The spat between Monteiro and Stubbelfield paled into insignificance in the afterglow of their Montreux success, Monteiro recalled: "We cleared the air and became great friends. Sometimes you have to go through things like that to get to know someone." Stubbelfield died of prostate cancer in 2005. "Bill Clinton, who used to live in John's hometown [Little Rock, Arkansas] visited him in hospital about five weeks before he died and they were able to talk while watching the DVD of that Montreux gig," remembered Monteiro. "When I went to see him two weeks before he died he could only whisper; he just said 'thank you.'"
Stubblefieldwho enjoyed a fifteen-year musical relationship with pianist Kenny Barronalso played and recorded with pianists McCoy Tyner, Mulgrew Miller, George Cables, Geri Allen and Abdullah Ibrahim. In Monteiro, Stubblefield found another outstanding pianist. Asian guys, it seems, can also play jazz.
A quick glance at the AJASPQ's resume points to their collective pedigree. In addition to numerous collaborations with Asian jazz musicians, the members of the AJASPQ have performed and recorded with saxophonists Michael Brecker, Jackie Mclean, James Moody, Ernie Watts, Sir John Dankworth, Don Weller, Tim Garland and Iain Ballamy; singers Cassandra Wilson, Roberta Gambarini and Youn Sun Nah; bassists Charlie Haden, Eddie Gomez, Jay Anderson, Christy Smith and Christian McBride; drummers Al Foster, Adam Nussbaum, Bill Bruford, Calvin Weston and Shawn Kelley; guitarists Joe Pass, Martin Taylor, Ernest Ranglin, Ulf Wakenius, Dan Phillips and Toninho Horta; trumpeters Randy Brecker and Leroy Jones; accordionist Richard Galliano; flutist Herbie Mann; percussionist Paulinho da Costa, harmonica player Toots Thielemans and pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.
To this extensive but by no means exhaustive list of collaborations, you can add former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and folk/pop icons Simon and Garfunkel. Individually, the members of the AJASPQ have toured all over the world, playing at some of the most prestigious jazz festivals in the world and in iconic venues such as the Budokan Hall in Japan and Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Monteiro for his part has had the honor of appearing on pianist Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz show. Yet, in spite of numerous collaborations with an A-list of jazz musicians, Tolentino, Pao, Techatana-nan, and to a lesser degree Monteiro, remain largely unknown outside of Asia.
For the musicians, who met up at Singapore's Changi airport, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation ahead of the concerts. Tolentinowho began playing saxophone 37 years agohad never played in either London or France: "I don't know what to expect," he said, "but I think I'm going to buy some thermal underwear." His immediate concern, however, was a soggy saxophone case and wet scores, the result of the case sitting on the airport tarmac in the rain which cast a grey veil over Singapore. Pao's equipment too didn't arrive unscathed, with damage to his pedal box. His guitar however, was fine: "This is a Reunion Blues guitar case. It's indestructible," he said. "There's a video on You Tube of a guy throwing his guitar from the roof of a building inside one of these and there's no damage at all."
It was straight down to business. Immediately after checking in at the hotel we made our way to the band's first rehearsal, at Singapore's famous Lion Studios. Established in 1980, Lion Studios was one of the first studios in South East Asia to embrace digital technology in 1985, though it has retained its analogue capabilities. Over the years a long roster of Asia's finest and most popular musicians have recorded here, including Indonesian jazz pianist Bubi Chen and Malaysian drummer Lewis Pragasum. American jazz musicians from pianist Bob James to trumpeter Herb Alpert and bassists Charlie Haden and James Genus have all recorded at Lion Studios, as have the AJASPQ's Monteiro and Pao.
The recording and rehearsal room was huge, and the musicians set up with plenty of space between them. It had been a year since the AJASPQ last performed; that tourthe band's firsttook it throughout Asia and was documented on Live at the Living Room Jazz Festival, Bangkok (Jazznote, 2011). In spite of the length of time since last playing together, the rehearsal went remarkably smoothly, with the musicians running through three hours of material without any major glitches. The musicians seemed to click right away, perhaps not unexpected given that they have been playing together for between 10 to 20 years.
In the car on the way to a pre-gig sound check the next day Monteiro told me a little of the history of the band: "This band is really an off-shoot of the Asian Jazz All-Stars, an eight or nine-piece band founded by [trumpeter] Terumasa Hino in 1992. It was me, Terumasa Hino, his brother Motohiko on drums, Eugene (Pao), a great saxophonist from Korea called Lee Jung Shiksteeped in Ornette Coleman and Pharoah SandersEmbong Raharjo from Indonesia on alto sax, Charito on vocals, Paul Candelaria and Benny Sakurai on bass. Tots [Tolentino] joined in '94." How did such a band come together in the first place? "[Terumasa] Hino actually came to each of our countries to audition us," Monteiro explained, "either by jamming or by watching us play."
Terumasa Hino is something of a legendary jazz figure in Japan and throughout Asia. His career began in the late 1950s, collaborating with some of Japan's leading jazz figures of the day, such as pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi, Masabumi Kikuchi and Yuzuro Sera, drummer Hideo Shiraki and saxophonist Hidehiko 'Sleepy' Matsumoto. New York-based since the mid-1970s, Hino established himself early on, collaborating with drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonists Jackie Mclean and Dave Liebman and bassist Sam Jones, amongst others. For Monteiro and the other members of the original Asian Jazz All-Stars, Terumasa Hino remains a revered figure: "He was like the godfather of Asian jazz to us," said Monteiro. "We all have huge respect for him."
The Asian Jazz All-Stars toured regularly for the next seven years, but to this day no official recordings of their concerts have been released. It was essentially a live band: "We must have toured Japan six or seven times," recalled Monteiro, "and we did a tour of North America in '95 that took us to Chicago, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and New York. In Asia, we toured Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Seoul, all over Japan and in Shanghai. They were great times."
Monteiroa natural raconteurhas plenty of stories about the band and the tours: "The first night we played in Shanghai in 1992 we had all the Politburo members in the front row and the atmosphere was really restrained. This was when China was just opening up," explained Monteiro. "The next night the generals weren't there and everybody was up and dancing, because no matter how hard we were blowing there was always a groove; amazing scenes."
The Asian Jazz All-Stars effectively disbanded when Motohiko Hinowho used to play for saxophonist Joe Hendersondied in 1999: "'Motohiko had a very unique way of playing," said Monterio. "I don't think Terumasa had the heart to continue with the band," The last concert the band played was the Singapore Jazz Festival in 2001. It was an Asian-American All-Stars band with [bassist] Jay Anderson and [drummer] Michael Carvin but there were to be no more concerts after that until 2010, when Monteiro reconvened Pao and Tolentino, with the addition of Hong on drums.
Though the concert set-lists on the AJASPQ's Asian-European tour changed from evening to evening, one composition it always played was "Tiramisu." Tolentino, the song's composer explained: "We were in some restaurant somewhere and we were talking about Terumasa Hino while eating tiramisu. It seemed like a good name for the song. It's a tribute to him."
Singapore concerts/Phone a friend Two of the three Singapore concerts were held in Fuse, a chic bar in the extraordinary, vertiginous Marina Bay Sands complex, a triple tower55 storeys high crowned with a 340-meter long boat-shaped edifice. Completed in 2010, at an estimated cost of S$8 billion it has become perhaps the most iconic building in Singapore and employs 10,000 people. It houses a 2,500-room hotel, an 800,000 square foot shopping mallwhich a canal runs throughan arts & science museum, theaters, an indoor skating rink, a convention center, half a dozen celebrity-chef restaurants, nightclubs and a 150-meter infinity swimming pool, which sits atop the world's largest cantilevered platform, 70-odd meters above the north tower. It also contains the world's largest atrium casino whose 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines attract around 25,000 punters daily.
The AJASPQ's concerts drew about fifty to a hundred people each evening, proving that the lure of money, shopping-for-fun, fine dining and even ice-skating all have a lot more appeal than a jazz concert. Nevertheless, for those in attendance the two concerts in The Face were highly rewarding. The stage at the Face was small, with Pao and Tolentino perched on one step of a tiny podium, like gulls clinging to a cliff vertical. Monteiro and Hong faced each other at opposite ends of the stage, looking down at the guitarist and saxophonist, and enjoying surer footing.
The AJASPQ's music is inspired by the Hammond organ ensembles of the 1960s, though the exhilarating renditions of organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart's "Wrappin' it Up" and "Acrobat" pointed to a more contemporary approach. All four exhibited outstanding chopswith Pao's fire reminiscent of jazz-rock pioneer Larry Coryell. There was plenty of finesse in the collective playing too, especially notable on a poignant reading of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition "This Guy's In Love" and Monteiro's striking reworking of a Portuguese/Malacca folk song, "Jingli Nona."
The powerful tribute to former band-mate Terumasa Hino, "Tiramisu," closed the first set in a rush of adrenaline, with Tolentino stealing the honors with a ripping solo. During the interval Monteiro spoke of the group's approach, and of his first encounter with the band's saxophonist: "'Tiramisu' captures the sound of the bigger Asian All-Stars band," he said. "We like to say that we have our heads in the clouds but our feet on the ground." Inspired and in complete control of his instrument would aptly describe Tolentino's playing: "I first saw him in '81 or '82 in the Philippines," explained Monteiro, "and I was blown away by how well he played."
The last number of the set was Michael Brecker's "African Skies." Monteiro and Pao had both played with the great tenor saxophonist, and Pao has lasting memories of his encounters with Brecker: "Michael Brecker, [drummer] Jack DeJohnette and [bassist] John Patitucci were playing in Hong Kong and they came to a small jazz club where I was playing," explained Pao. "When I came to make my first album, I thought, 'Who would I really like to have play on my album?' I rang Jack DeJohnette in New York with my heart pounding and he said 'Yes, sure.' Michael too; it was amazing. I couldn't believe it. I guess they liked my playing." Pao's first solo album, By the Company You Keep (Somethin' Else, 1996) featured, Brecker, DeJohnette and Patitucci, as well as veteran bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon and really proved the old saying of "nothing ventured nothing gained."
Sixteen years on, it doesn't seem to have quite sunk in for Pao, and he reflected on his good fortune from another perspective: "CDs don't sell so well these days so I was lucky to record with those guys when I did." Brecker's death in 2007 was a grave loss to the music world, and Pao remembered the most influential of modern saxophonists with fondness: "I ran into Michael many times at festivals around the world and he was always so nice. He wouldn't talk about himself, he wanted to know how you were, what you were up to. I bumped into him at the North Sea Jazz Festival when he was playing with [guitarist] Pat Metheny. They took me around from gig to gig, introducing me to people like [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard. That was amazing. We miss him."
The second performance at The Face the following night broadly followed the same set as the first night, with just a few different numbers including a great performance of "Oasis," a tune Monteiro co-penned with tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts. Monterio and Watts first played together in 1987 and will be embarking on a tour next year to celebrate a quarter of a century of making music together. The set may have similar but the playing was up a notch from the previous night, something that all the musicians agreed was down to the improved sound, courtesy of the arrival of longtime Monteiro soundman, Sunil Kumar Raghupathy.
As General Manager of Primeworks Studios, Raghupathy rarely gets behind the soundboard these days but when Monteiro called him for this gig and the following one in London he couldn't say no: "I have a soft spot for Jeremy," he said. "I started out as an amateur fifteen years ago with him and I learned and improved a lot with him. I've traveled all over the world with him." The main difference from the first concert in The Face was that Raghupathy brought down the levels. The instruments were quieter and the resultthe four musicians agreedwas a more relaxed and more nuanced playing. That didn't mean the performance was less powerful, just the opposite in fact, and all the band members were really happy with their individual performances.
Earlier that day, the AJASPQ was scheduled to give a one-hour performance at the Nanyng Technology University, one of the top-ranked universities in the world. In the car on the way to the campus Monteiro spoke of the difficulties facing Asian jazz musicians to get heard abroad and to get sponsorship: "It was always difficult to get gigs," said Monteiro, "and it's still as difficult as ever. Asian rich kids complicate matters because they buy their careers. Some of them are very good and I'm happy they're on the scene, but the mediocre ones offer to play festivals for free so they can put it on their CVs. So festivals will ask us to come and play for free but you can't make a living playing for free. It feels like tokenism."
Monteiro has organized jazz festivals in Singapore and Thailand, and was Artistic Director for the inaugural KL International Jazz Festival in Malaysia in May 2012. He's well aware of the growing market as a touring destination that Asia represents for American and European promoters and musicians but he would like the opportunities to be a little more reciprocal: "I think they have to be mindful and help create a highway for Asian artists to perform in their own countries," Monteiro said. Monteiro, in conjunction with the Singaporean government, is working to create such a highway between Singapore and France, a program that began in 2010 when the pianist was invited to perform at the inaugural Saveurs Jazz Festival in Segre, in the Pays de la Loire region of western France.
With commitment from both governments to develop exchange between musicians from the two countries, Monteiro is excited at the possibilities that lie ahead. It hasn't always been easy by any means, to find support and sponsorship, but he was obviously grateful to his and the AJASPQ's sponsors, the Composer's & Authors Society of Singapore and the EFG Bank, the latter also sponsoring the London Jazz Festival: "The EFG Bank has been a great supporter. I'm really grateful," Monteiro acknowledged. "They're putting their sponsorship behind jazz, yachts and elephant polo." Elephant polo? "There are a lot of maharajas who play in India," explained Monteiro.
The lunchtime concert at Nanyng Technology University was enthusiastically received by an almost full house of students and provided the right opportunity to talk about the state of jazz studies in Asia. Monteiro, Tolentino and Hong all teach in universities in their respective countries and painted a picture of a still fairly nascent scene.
Perhaps the most developed jazz studies programs of the four countries are in Thailand, where three Bangkok universities offer jazz programs. The Thailand International Jazz Conference held at Mahidol Universitya jazz festival for jazz musiciansis now in its fourth year of promoting young talent and inviting top international jazz musicians to give workshops and perform.
As Hong explained, Slipakorn University has its own plans to foster and promote young jazz talent: "There's a young jazz talent competition in Slipakorn in January. It's a competition open to all. There will be a solo competition, and a band competitionthe only one in Thailand." Despite the high standards of instruction and musicianship it's not easy for graduates to make a living as jazz musicians in Bangkok. There are a number of jazz festivals in Thailandthough they tend to lean towards the smooth/easy listening vocal side of the fenceand a number of established venues in Bangkok where the only the best jazz musicians can get gigs.
The scene is much smaller in the Philippenes. Tolentino teaches saxophone at the University of Santo Thomas, where he is the co-coordinator of the jazz program, though it's modest in size: "There are just a handful of students," said Tolentino. "It's the only jazz program in Manila and there's just one or maybe two graduates per year." Teaching poses particular challenges for Tolentino: "The most difficult thing is getting the students away from the books and getting them to learn the traditional wayby listening and learning by ear. They look for shortcuts. There aren't any shortcuts," he stressed. "The first question I'm asked in improvisation classes is 'what books do you recommend?.' I was the same when I started out," he admitted.
Tolentino may have started out the same way as the students he currently teaches, but he's is one of a small number of jazz musicians from the Philippenes who graduated from Berklee. Tolentino studied there from 19801982 and described his initial feelings shortly after arriving: "Man, that was a culture shock," he said, laughing. "Listening to all these 19 year-olds playing like John Coltrane; I thought, 'Man what am I going to do here?'" Tolentino found the learning curve outside of the classroom to be faster: "I learned more from just being on the scene, from playing and from listening to people play."
Tolentino was one of only a few Philipino musicians studying at Berklee: "There were only a couple of musicians from the Philippines when I arrived and only a couple when I left. There were lots of Japanese students and they were living in nicer apartments than the locals. I think that for most Phillipinos it was beyond their means to live in Boston and pay the tuition fees. I don't think that has changed."
Back in Manilawhere, according to Tolentino, there are only around 20 jazz musiciansTolentino was forced to play other forms of music in order to keep body and soul together, an experience from which he drew the positives: "I played a lot of pop and smooth jazz but it has helped my playing for sure," he said. "In the studio you have to create a certain sound; you can't just play anything. It taught me discipline and it taught me not to play too many notes."
Monteiro has been Professor and Visiting Chair of Jazz at LASALLE College in Singapore since 2006, and the first Singaporean to hold the post. The jazz educational scene in Singapore, Monteiro explained, is small, reflecting the status of the music in a city where there's no jazz festival and only a handful of venues that host jazz: "The jazz program at LASALLE started with about 20 students and has grown to somewhere between 80 and 100. It's the only jazz program in Singapore and I'd say it has produced about half a dozen good jazz musicians," said Monteiro, "ones who are able to go out and make a go of it professionally. In terms of musicians who play with soul, Singapore has probably produced the same number of jazz musicians as Bangkok."
Singapore staged a jazz festival from 1985 to 1987 but there was a gap of 14 years before the Singapore International Jazz Festival was launched in 2001, an ambitious affair that brought fifty bands to the stage. The festival was sponsored by Singapore Airlines but in the light of significant layoffs and route closures post-9/11, the airline pulled out and the festival, directed by Monteiro, lasted only one edition.
Monteiro's son and the AAJPQ's indefatigable road manager, Varian Monteiro, explained why there hasn't been a jazz festival in Singapore since: "There have been attempts to re-launch a jazz festival in Singapore but even if you can find sponsors it's difficult to get consensus about where to stage the festival, how much money to invest and what form it should take."
Hong Kong has similarly had a checkered history in staging jazz festivals, though it currently has two, staged rather oddly within a week of each other. Nevertheless, as Pao explained, Hong Kong's jazz scene is also small: "There are maybe about 20 to 25 jazz musicians here. It's not a big scene." Given the small scale of jazz in the respective countries of the members of the AJASPQ, their achievements seem all the more remarkable. Though, as all four musicians will tell you success is the result of long years of dedication, playing the gigs wherever they are no matter how small or unglamorous, and countless hours of practice.
The London Jazz Festival was in full swing when the AJASPQ touched down on Thursday, 15th November. Few festivals in the world can match London's exciting and increasingly eclectic program. Monteiro had already experienced the atmosphere of the London Jazz Festival in 2010 when he performed there with his Organamix trio but this was the first time for the other musicians in the band and it clearly meant a lot to them: "It's the highlight of my career," said Pao. "It's a really big festival."
The day before the much anticipated concert at the London Jazz festival the AJASPQ gave a workshop at the South Bank Centre, in front of The Thames. Three students from London College, drummer Oberon King, double bassist Inga Eichler and pianist Rowan Hudson, encouraged by their teachers, gamely volunteered to perform before a small audience and then to be critiqued by Monteiro, Hong and bassist Andrew Brown, the latter who was playing in the festival with singer Stacey Kent. Monteiro advised Hudson to be more mindful of his left hand to aim for melodic, harmonic and rhythmic tension in his soloing.
Brownaddressing Eichlerand Monteiro both spoke of the need to develop more pronounced contours in their solos, as well as the positive affect of varying the volume. Monteiro stressed the necessity of finding a common pulse and the importance of eye contact to communicate. He also paraphrased philosopher Carl Jung's line on making the unconscious conscious, suggesting the young musicians mentally step outside the band to hear if they are playing too loud or too softly. Hong, for his part, advised Oberon to aim to develop a greater sense of flow in his drum solos.
After the workshop, Monteiroa self-taught jazz musicianreflected on his role as an educator : "For the first twenty years of my career I didn't bother with the education side of it, but I've come to see that to be part of passing the music on and moving it forward is very important." In conversation with the three jazz students after the workshop over a coffee it was clear that Monteiro's sentiments about the importance of education resonated strongly with these students, given the way they spoke of their university teachers at Middlesex University: "They're absolutely amazing," said Hudson. King concurred: "They're really dedicated and they care about teaching. They're genuinely interested in wanting us to do well." Inga added: "They're great. "They're working musicians, not just academics."
The students estimated that two-thirds of the jazz they study at university is from the American tradition: "It's still the benchmark everywhere, isn't it?" affirmed King. Nevertheless, when asked what they enjoy listening to, the three talk of Hermeto Pascoal and Brazilian music, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist Keith Tippett, alto saxophonist Elton Dean and music from Germany and Iceland, not to mention classical music. American jazz remains the template, but music from all over the world is increasingly providing new vocabulary and accents.
These bright young talents are pretty savvy and have no illusions as to the difficulties they will face in pursuit of a career as professional jazz musicians: "It's tough. There's so much competition," observed Eichler. "You might have an incredible set of skills and be a great player but it may still be impossible to find work," Hudson added, going on to say, "It's not necessarily the best idea to just muscle in on a scene or try and get in with a collective of musicians; you have to find your own way. You have to advertise yourselfthat's the modern world, and making this music applicable to a modern audience is vitally important."
The main business, the AJASPQ's concert at the London Jazz Festival took place the following evening. The intimate basement of Pizza Express has been the scene of some amazing jazz concerts since 1969 and the walls are adorned with photos of some of the illustrious figures who have performed there. The sound check went without a hitch and the AJASPQ took to the stage at 8.00 pm. After introducing the members to the audience, Monteiro said to the band: "Play as long as you like, if the spirit takes you." The spirit, perhaps fuelled by the jazz greats staring down from the walls, certainly took the musicians, and the performance, capped by an exhilarating give-and-take between Pao and Tolentino that evoked the heady, ecstasy-driven highs of the Mahavishnu Orchestra brought loud cheers from the small but vocal audience. Celebratory Guinness flowed late into the night.
The following day was a quest to find and test some of the latest in piano and keyboard technology. The first port of call for Monteiro, Varian and the author was Sevenoaks, Kenta forty-minute train journey outside Londonto visit Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios. Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios is home to Phoenix Pianos, the enterprise of Richard Dain. Dain's family has farmed hazelnuts for sixty years, but when the keen amateur pianist and mechanical engineer bought a Bosendorfer Imperial piano it set in motion an experimentnow in progress 16 yearsto perfect the sound that a piano could produce using modern technologies.
Dain and engineer Geoff Sapsford are using state of the art acoustic and computer science to improve the power and sustain of notes. Their designs also aim to lengthen a piano's lifespan, whilst protecting it from the adverse affects of harsh climates. Dain's design concepts so impressed Steingraeber & Söhne of Bayreuth that it formed a partnership with Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios to incorporate Dain's system into its pianosthus giving birth to a special range of pianos called Steingraeber-Phoenix. Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios is now the sole UK agent for the famous piano manufacturing company that provided Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt with his last grand piano.
Alongside a strong sense of history and tradition at Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios there was also one of innovation and progress, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the enthusiasm and sense of purpose that both Dain and Sapsford exuded in talking about their craft. The key element in their innovative design is carbon fiber. "The five-layer soundboard is carbon fiber, and is based on Formula One racing car technology," explained 84-year-old Dain. "The fibers are directionally controlled, like a Formula One car. It's extremely thin so sound energy loss is very much reduced."
Dain showed us a new design of patented bridge agaffe, which he claimed transmits vibration energy from the strings to the soundboard more efficiently than conventional bridge pins and eliminates the down-bearing forces from the strings to the soundboard. This, he explained, eliminates the gradual collapse of sound boards, thus extending the piano's lifespan. Dain pointed out a host of other features, both technical and aesthetic, but the other notable innovation was hydraulically operated pedals, which he said serve to reduce noise and increase versatility.
At the time of our visit, Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios was home to around 30 extremely handsome grand pianos, finished in white maple and burl walnut, with keys honed from mammoth ivory dug up from Siberian ice. The pianos are housed in a wooden-framed building called the "Hurricane Barn," built by Dain himself. The name is derived from the fact that all the wooden beams were hewn from trees blown over in the storm of 15-16 October 1987, the most violent storm to hit England in 300 years. "Winds reached 130 mph," Dain related, "and uprooted 10,000 trees on the farm. These were hardwood treesso hard that you couldn't drive a nail into them without drilling a hole. It was two years before I could walk on the farm, such was the damage."
Monteiro tried out a number of pianos, drawing classical lines and jazz melodies from a number of models. His interest in the Phoenix range of pianos had much to do with the climatic conditions in his native Singapore: "Concert halls have to very carefully regulate temperature and control humidity before rolling a piano onto the stage," he explained. "I'm curious to see how these pianos with carbon fiber soundboards sound." The answer to Asia's unkind climactic conditionsat least to pianoswas stored in the building opposite the Hurricane Barn. Dain opened the door of the recital hallconverted from a farm machinery shedand introduced us to Phoenix Piano's boldest attempt yet to harness technology in a bid to outfox naturea carbon fiber piano.
Not yet in commercial production, this was the prototype that Dain and Sapsford believe represents the forerunner of the next generation of piano: "It's extremely durable," said Dain, "and the main advantage is that it's completely unaffected by temperature or humidity." The sleek looking carbon fiber piano may also represent the most significant advance in piano design for over a century. It's also about one third of the weight of a traditional grand piano.
Whereas Dain and Sapsford are genuinely excited by the carbon fiber piano's possibilities, Monteiro was more guarded in his praise: "It's undoubtedly a fascinating project," he said, "but I'm not sure if the sound is an improvement. I'd need to spend more time with it." As for the hydraulic foot pedals, Monteiro acknowledged the ingeniousness of the design but admitted it wasn't for him: "I'd have to undo a lifetime's learning," he said. Like a lot of cutting edge and experimental technology, the carbon fiber piano's appeal may lie with a younger, less traditional generation and one not yet set in its ways. It will be fascinating to see the story unfold, as it surely will.
The next stop was Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. The missiontry out the KeyB organ. A friend of Monteiro, Italian organist Alberto Marisco was playing there in Norwegian guitarist Frode Kjekstad's Italian Job Trio Frode Kjekstad's Italian Job Trio and had told Monteiro to swing by during the afternoon to try it out for size. The appointment had to be cancelled, but Monteiro decided to go along to the late-night gig to at least hear the KeyB in action. There were a few familiar faces from the London Jazz Festival soaking up the informal atmosphere and although the club was less than packed the crowd was in good tune.
Mariscoequally adept at both jazz and blues organ stylescame to Monteiro's attention a decade before. "He came to Singapore for a gig and I helped him find an organ," said Monteiro. "He's a really fine player." Joey DeFrancesco, one of the modern greats of the organ, is also a big fan of Marisco and it was easy to see why during the next hour or so. As luck would have it, Marisco had to leave shortly into the second set to catch a night bus to Scotland, so Monteiro didn't have to think twice when Ronnie Scott's evening host, saxophonist Alex Garnett, invited him to the stage to fill the organ chair.
Monteiro played beautifully for thirty minutes before relinquishing the reins as an open-stage jam session unfolded. Afterwards, his smile said it all and he was unreserved in his praise for the KeyB: "I love the Nord Organ but the Key B is the best thing I've tried so far, save the original Tonewheel B3," he said. "To me, the Key B feels and sounds better than anything out there at this time except for the very few original Hammond Tonewheel organs still in existence. In the war of the clonesincluding Hammond's own clone wheelI think Key B is the current front-runner."
It had been a fascinating and fun day, testing out the latest in piano and keyboard technology. As technology changes so too do the sounds of modern instruments, and it follows, the sound of jazz.
London came to an end all too soon, though just before boarding the Eurostar at St. Pancras bound for Paris there was some impromptu entertainment when Monteiro stumbled across a slightly beat-up pink piano in the terminal promenade. Though more used to Yamahas and Steinways, Monteiro took the role of bar-room honky-tonk pianist with natural flair, unrolling blues, jazz and classical lines on this object trouve, stopping passersby and turning heads. Every train station in the world should have a beat-up old piano with a sign hanging from it saying "Play Me."
Forty meters under the English Channel, traveling at around 300 kilometers per hour, the AJASPQ was in relaxed mood. Complementary reading material included a copy of Metropolitan, one of whose front page headlines was: "The Future Sound of Jazz: Purists Against Heretics at the London Jazz Festival." The question as to what jazz isand what it's notcontinues to arouse debate, though for the members of the AJASPQ the consensus was very much on the side of saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who was quoted in the article by John Lewis as saying: "The idea of purity in jazz is nonsense. All the music we make is feedback."
This year's London Jazz Festival was extremely eclectic, covering the full spectrum of jazz genres, as well flamenco, Brazilian and African music and avant-pop. In a festival the size of London's such anomalies barely create a ripple amongst the purists, as the feast of jazz is bountiful, but in smaller jazz festivals it's easier to scrutinize and criticize programming which leans precariously away from jazz in balance. Monteiro has always respected the tradition and the roots of jazz whilst welcoming innovation, but his opinion as to what constitutes a jazz festivaland what doesn'twas pretty clear-cut: "I think a jazz festival should have at least 60% jazz; if it's less than half then it should just call itself a music festival."
Less than an hour later, the AJASPQ disembarked in Paris. The visit was short, just an overnight stay before heading on to Segré the following morning. Nevertheless, there was time enough for the team to enjoy a sensational bistro meal with a couple of bottles of red wine. Pao and I then headed to Ducs Des Lombards to catch drummer Billy Hart's quartet with saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. Now 71, Hart is a prime example of a jazz musician who has moved with the times, as the quartet's All Our Reasons (ECM, 2012) elegantly demonstrates.
Segré, a picturesque town in the Maine-et-Loire department of western France, punches above its weight. In 2010, this town with a population of just 7,000 launched the Saveurs Jazz Festival. The honor of playing the very first concert fell to Monteiro on a bill that also included the trio of piano legend Ahmad Jamal.
In its first three editionsheld each year in Augustthe Saveurs Jazz Festival has also drawn musicians of the caliber of accordionist Richard Galliano, trumpeter Nicolas Folmer, saxophonists Archie Shepp, Chris Potter, Dave Liebman and Rosario Giuliani, bassist Richard Bona, guitarist Bireli Lagrène, violinist Didier Lockwood and drummers Daniel Humair and Ari Hoenig. It's clearly a jazz festival of some ambition.
The AJASPQ was invited to Segré as part of the year-round Segré Cultural Festivala festival that celebrates the arts in all its formsand the reception given and the hospitality accorded the AJASPQ and the team was exceptional.
First up was a workshop attended by 20 children aged 12-15 from the George Girande orchestra. The workshop provided the opportunity for the AJASPQ to try out a Monteiro composition, "Seul a Paris," for the first time and limber up for the following evening's performance. A question-and-answer session brought some intelligent questions from the young students about skills development, improvisation and acquiring a sound. "The bottom line is practice," Monteiro advised. As for improvisation, Tolentino said: "Listening is the key. Listen to lots of music."
For the drummers among the students Hong made this observation: "The cymbals reflect your sound, your personality." The students showed great interest in Pao's pedal board and the range of sounds it produced, gathering around the guitarist with obvious enthusiasm as he patiently demonstrated the full range of tricks in his box. "When I started out it was just fuzz box and wah-wah," said the 53-year old, grinning.
The hall of Segre's Cultural Center was almost full when the AJASPQ came on stage the next evening to warm applause, a reception that set the tone for the evening. The musicians gave their all in the best performance of the tour and the audience responded generously, the two entities feeding off each other's energy. The concert began with a delightful rendition of "Autumn Leaves," which evolved from Monteiro's classically-inspired intro to a more dynamic group statement. Pao's "Make it So"inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generationwas a heady bebop-flavored workout. The collective energy levels were high, prompting Monteiro to say afterwards: "Normally we play that at Warp three but tonight we played it at Warp nine."
"Jingly Nona" saw a terrific three-way dialogue between pianist, guitarist and saxophonist. "African Skies" closed the set with fireworks and the inevitable and much deserved encore saw the band dust down "Carrot Cake"another Peter Bernstein compositionfor the first time since the previous year's tour. With the crowd clapping encouragement the musicians in turn gave energized solos over the infectious 1960s Blue Note-era groove. The band took its bows to a standing ovation after a memorable two-hour performance. On the way out, I asked some of the children from the George Gironde school who had attended the afternoon's workshop what they thought of the concert: "Amazing," said one; "Incredible," another. Bowmore malt whiskey replaced Guinness as the celebratory liquid, generously poured by our wonderfully convivial French hosts until late into the night.
The final gig on the tour was in Hong Kong four days later. That gave all the musicians the chance to head to their separate homes to recharge the batteries. The AJASPQ and I parted company at Singapore airport. I couldn't make the Hong Kong concerta late addition to the tour scheduleas I was covering the Penang Island Jazz Festival in Malaysia at the same time. I would have loved to have been there to cross the finishing line with my traveling companions of the last two weeks but it wasn't to be. Nevertheless, I am privileged to have been part of the AJASPQ's first foray into Europe and the energy and excitement of those half dozen gigs and the fun along the way will linger long in the memory.
Some of the best, most original jazz concerts I have seen since 2006, when I began writing for All About Jazz, have been by Asian bands. Thailand's Pomelo Town, Taiwan's Sizhukong, China's SIU2, Indonesia's simakDialog, Korea's Park & Miyeong duo, Japan's Pe'zeach radically differenthave all impressed. To this list I must add the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet, whose combination of lyricism, grooving rhythms and thundering fusion places it among the very best of today's jazz fusion bands.
The positive reception received by Monterio, Pao, Tolentino and Hong in both Asia and in Europe confirmed the universal appeal of the band's work. For Monteiro, the tour was a success on more than one level: "This tour was great because we got to strut our stuff in front of audiences which don't come to Asia and so would not be able to see us perform." The reception of the AJASPQ, especially in Europe, was of particular satisfaction to Monteiro: "The warmth of the audiences has inspired me to keep on keepin' on," he said.
With plans to record both live and in the studio, the AJASPQ is here to stay. Hopefully, European and American concert and festival promoters will recognize what the likes of Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea learned some time agothese Asian guys can play their butts off.
Pages 3 (top), 5 (top): Ian Patterson All Other Photos: Varian Monteiro