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FROM Philippine Graphic, June 2005 Catching Johnny at the Turnaround Affinity Delivers 1-2 Punch with CD Release And in this corner, we have Affinity, flexing its muscles as the current king of Pinoy jazz. Are you ready to rumble? I hope so. Affinity delivers a knockout performance with the simultaneous release of its maiden CD, along with a beautifully produced DVD with two well- shot and recorded videos, and lots of other multi-media stuff about the band. For the record, Affinity is led by guitarist Johnny Alegre, who penned all but one of the compositions on the album. This is truly “his album.” Without his perserverance and relentless drive, this combination of releases would never have happened. It’s his vision. He’s joined by several other amazingly talented musicians. Tots Tolentino, with his Berklee training, is well-known far beyond the Philippines for his mastery of the reed instruments. Elhmir Saison on k;eyboards is, in my view, one of the most under-appreciated musicians in the country. I first heard him way back in 1987 at Harry’s Bar, where he fronted a traditional jazz piano trio. I exclaimed back then that here is a true world-class jazz musician. I still believe it. On bass, we have Colby de la Calzada. He’s long resided among the top acoustic jazz bassists in the Philippines – a position well deserved. Colby also penned the next to last track on the CD album. And finally on drums, we have Koko Bermejo, one of the few Filipino jazz musicians who has made a name in the highly competitive US jazz world. We are fortunately that Koko has “come back home.” The DVD sets a new standard for Filipino musicians who are serious about promoting their music. Originally conceived as an Electronic Press Kit aimed only at media outlets and potential venues, it turned out so well that Affinity has happily printed up enough copies that many fans will be able to own one. It’s available, I understand, direct from the band at Affinity gigs. If I had to choose between the video package and the audio album, I’d choose the video, but then I like to watch musicians, as well as to listen to them. There’s much for musicians, local and international, to learn from the DVD. It is magnificently packaged, and the content is well-thought out and presented. This promotional tool has become the international standard for groups that really hope to gain attention. I don’t know how many local musicians have gone to the trouble of producing one, but any group that hopes to perform abroad should have one. I’m hoping that Affinity’s DVD will attract international attention, just to underscore the point. Such a reward is richly deserved. Still, as much as I like the video, the real punch is delivered by the audio album. But I have a confession to make: the first time I played the album, I did not like it at all. I played it rather late the night I bought the CD, with volume turned low, out of consideration of my drowsy family. To my ears, the mix was off. The various instruments did not cut through with clarity. The drums seemed way too submerged and strangely over-active in such a background role. The bass sounded like card-board, with no resonance. The keyboards were limp. NOT a first good impression. A few days later, with the house otherwise empty at mid-day, I gave the album another try, this time with the volume up for a full-fledged listening session. What an extraordinary difference. Suddenly, the bass had presence, character and body. The drums melded in solidly in intricate interplay. The piano accompaniment underpinnings became cogent. And the sax and guitar lines sprang to life. This is a CD that has to be played fairly loud to be appreciated. There’s a lesson here for musicians and producers. What sounds good out of studio monitors will not necessarily sound good coming out of fan boom-boxes and car radios. And subtleties in the mix can vanish at varying volumes. This is one of the major challenges in post-production work, checking the tracks in varying playback circumstances. Even performance across the spectrum of volume and playback vehicles is possible, but it’s a challenge to achieve. Mind you, Affinity is not playing “drive-time music.” It isn’t likely to show in auto sound systems. Their music is very challenging for the ear, even at proper volume. There’s something strangely ethereal about it. There are few immediately recognizable “off-the-shelf” chord changes here. Chord voicings provide rich coloration, but do not immediately lay out a track’s chord progressions. Frequently, it is even difficult to distinguish where one chorus ends and the other begins, a feature quite disorienting to the first-time listener. During my second, much more analytical listening, I began to sort out the musical conception behind the material. There’s a compositional characteristic which emerges as a Johnny Alegre trademark. Fortunately, almost a year ago, I had a musical encounter with Johnny that finally now provides insight. I must share the story with you. Some of you may know that I play harmonica with LAMPANO ALLEY. My interest is particularly in blues, infused with substantial jazz elements. While flying back to Manila from Mexico, an unusual instrumental blues line, which lays out perfectly on the small diatonic harmonica, popped into my head. One very brief bar 9 and 10 section – the usual V-IV progression for those musicians among you – called instead for a rapid succession of jazz chord progressions. I could hear them in my head, but needed help figuring them out. Johnny consented to giving my blues line a listen, so we arranged to meet at lunch time at the Perfect Pitch store at the Ayala Commercial Center. Johnny listened to me play the melody line and then immediately started fooling around on one of the store’s keyboards. Within two minutes he had the chords and their voicings, a rich romp through a circle of fifths chords, thoroughly worked out. But he included a stunner, which completely caught me off guard. He came up with an out-of-the-blue, very strange chord for the final two bars. WOW! Normally, each blues verse comes to a very conventional closure, one of a host of conventional “turnarounds,” as blues/jazz musicians call them. These “turnarounds” work to draw an aural conclusion to the verse and set up a return to the next full 12-bar verse, or on occasion to an alternative “chorus,” or “middle section.” Musicians often refer to this as a “resolution,” where the melody comes to its final resting place. The ear accepts that “resolution” as the final statement of the melody line. Binky Lampano and I have a continuing on-stage dialogue about “resolution.” My harmonica solos typically reach for the “resolution,” a clear-cut final resting point. Those of you who’ve seen LAMPANO ALLEY live performances may have heard Binky shout at me, “Don’t resolve, don’t resolve.” It’s one of his mantras! Essentially he’s asking me to leave the solo hanging out there in mid-air somewhere. It’s a “jazz thing,” believe me. Johnny Alegre demonstrates the same mantra in the album, over and over. Song after song on the Affinity album gallops into this unusual concluding section, that actually just leaves the listener hanging out there in infinity, no resolution in sight. It’s his trademark. And it gives his compositions that “ethereal” quality” I identified on first listening. The songs seem almost to wander endlessly, without any clear conclusion until the very final chord of the song. And even that final chord is often a total surprise! Personally, I think what Alegre and crew have come up with is truly world-class, truly original. Test your ears. Listen to the album with this appreciation for the “unresolved.” Getting philosophical for a moment, I’m beginning to wonder if Filipino jazz musicians are actually making, perhaps subconsciously, a “statement.” Music so often reflects reality. Think about it. I’ll stop my discourse now. It’s your turn to grab a copy of the album and give it your own careful attention. I think you too will discover that each musician in the group expresses this “unresolved” view of life and music, consciously or not. Listen. And think!
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