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

Ian Patterson By

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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-nan—who together make up the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet—the 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 jazz—both since 1959—for 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 festival—the London Jazz Festival—and on to France for a concert in Segré. Along the way Monteiro, Pao, Tolentino and Techatana-nan—also known as Hong—shared 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.
Chapter Index

Perceptions of Asian Jazz/All-Stars Pedigree

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 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 ODonel 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.'"

Stubblefield—who enjoyed a fifteen-year musical relationship with pianist Kenny Barron—also 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 DaCosta, 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.



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