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
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
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!