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Live Reviews

On The Road With The Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet

By Published: December 18, 2012
Singapore Workshop/Unequal Opportunities

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.

Jazz Education in Asia

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 University—a jazz festival for jazz musicians—is 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 competition—the 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 Thailand—though they tend to lean towards the smooth/easy listening vocal side of the fence—and 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 way—by 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 1980—1982 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
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
; 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 Manila—where, according to Tolentino, there are only around 20 jazz musicians—Tolentino 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.

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