Ernie Watts, Jeremy Monteiro & Organamix: Chamber at the Arts House, Singapore

Ian Patterson By

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Ernie Watts, Jeremy Monteiro & Organamix
Chamber at the Arts House
July 31, 2010

As Jeremy Monteiro's composition "One People, One Nation, One Singapore" filled the air, jet planes roared at supersonic speed overhead followed by formations of helicopters. Armored personnel carriers and tanks rolled down the streets and fireworks filled the sky. This is not a typical set-up for a Monteiro gig. It had been his fiftieth birthday celebration recently and sax legend Ernie Watts was in town—both reasons to celebrate—but no, this was a dry run for the upcoming Singapore National Day—Singapore takes its birthday seriously.

The gig itself was held in the beautiful old Parliament House building by Singapore River, across from the art deco shop houses of Boat Quay. This was the first area to be developed along the river, having grown from the swamps in the 1820s and the Chinese, who arrived early in the dramatic story of Singapore, called this area 'the belly of the carp' due to its position on the river. The skyline of Singapore has of course changed radically, though most dramatically of all in the last ten years, with architecture the match of the most flamboyant imagination. What hasn't changed over the years, however, is Monteiro's position as the undisputed King of Swing in Singapore and this quartet gig was a reminder of why he has endured and flourished for so long.

From left to right: Jeremy Monteiro, Andrew Lim, Ernie Watts, Hong

Monteiro's Hammond trio has been together for about a year now and the increased confidence and cohesion in its playing since their debut on Groovin' at Groove Junction (Jazznote, 2009) was notable. The addition of guest Watts on tenor saxophone with his full, vital sound contrasted nicely with the generally softer, more pensive organ explorations of Monteiro. The quartet launched into the Watts tune "Road Shoes" and the tenorist's improvisation was a model of tremendous passion and total control. Watts makes this look as effortless as peeling spuds but it's down to over forty years of dedication and continual striving to play the best he can. Monteiro's solo was similarly energetic, with fat swathes of notes and shimmering exclamations filling the old parliamentary chamber. Guitarist Andrew Lim can hold his own and his opening salvo was imaginative and on the edge. There was absolutely no coasting in this quartet's playing.

With Montiero's left hand playing the bass line and Lim providing colorful support the music swung hard, with drummer Hong maintaining the groove the whole time while exhibiting subtle shades in his playing. Hong has a fairly light touch but engenders great swing, adding flourishes to the mix which make his playing quite captivating in a way reminiscent at times of the great Joe Morello. "Season of Change" featured a powerful solo from Watts which began tentatively, gaining wings gradually and reaching a stirring conclusion before handing over to Monteiro. With Hong switching to brushes Monteiro kept both the intensity and the momentum going before Lim's carefully weighted solo provided contrast in the mid-section. Watts re-entered in vigorous mode and the tune swung hard to the end. Watts is playing better than ever these days and he could arguably lay claim to the mantle of Michael Brecker.

For his part Monterio has also amassed an impressive number of original compositions over the last thirty years and the set proceeded with his own "Falling in Love Again," an ode to the irresistible nature of music. Watts, Lim and Monteiro took turns to solo on tune which may be a ballad given its strongly melodic vein, but which in the hands of such a hard-grooving quartet took on a different life altogether, vibrant and charged. With a few musicians still in town from the previous night's big band concert led by Monteiro there was a chance that a guest appearance might take place and the quartet duly became a quintet when Gabriel Mark Hasselbach came to the stage with his trumpet.

From left to right: Ernie Watts Jeremy Monteiro, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, Andrew Lim

A wonderful version of Watt's "Gee Baby" from Analog Man (Flying Dolphin Records, 2007) ensued, Hasselbach impressing with a beautifully weighted bluesy solo. Another notable contribution from Watts paved the way for Monteiro's most expansive solo of the set which began in somewhat hushed voice before intensifying and fully letting go in dramatic fashion. Again the volume dropped to allow the subtleties of Lim's playing on his beautiful-looking spruce-top Hofner guitar to be fully appreciated. Hasselbach returned, this time with a growling mute voice and he and Watts traded with each other with the nous of old pros and the passion of Young Turks.

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