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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 Wartajazz.com 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 The 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.

Singapore Rehearsals

For the musicians, who met up at Singapore's Changi airport, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation ahead of the concerts. Tolentino—who began playing saxophone 37 years ago—had never played in either London or France: "I don't know what to expect," he said, "but I think I'm going to buy some thermal underwear." His immediate concern, however, was a soggy saxophone case and wet scores, the result of the case sitting on the airport tarmac in the rain which cast a grey veil over Singapore. Pao's equipment too didn't arrive unscathed, with damage to his pedal box. His guitar however, was fine: "This is a Reunion Blues guitar case. It's indestructible," he said. "There's a video on You Tube of a guy throwing his guitar from the roof of a building inside one of these and there's no damage at all."

It was straight down to business. Immediately after checking in at the hotel we made our way to the band's first rehearsal, at Singapore's famous Lion Studios. Established in 1980, Lion Studios was one of the first studios in South East Asia to embrace digital technology in 1985, though it has retained its analogue capabilities. Over the years a long roster of Asia's finest and most popular musicians have recorded here, including Indonesian jazz pianist Bubi Chen and Malaysian drummer Lewis Pragasum. American jazz musicians from pianist Bob James to trumpeter Herb Alpert and bassists Charlie Haden and James Genus have all recorded at Lion Studios, as have the AJASPQ's Monteiro and Pao.

The recording and rehearsal room was huge, and the musicians set up with plenty of space between them. It had been a year since the AJASPQ last performed; that tour—the band's first—took it throughout Asia and was documented on Live at the Living Room Jazz Festival, Bangkok (Jazznote, 2011). In spite of the length of time since last playing together, the rehearsal went remarkably smoothly, with the musicians running through three hours of material without any major glitches. The musicians seemed to click right away, perhaps not unexpected given that they have been playing together for between 10 to 20 years.

Asian Jazz All-Stars/Teramasu Hino

In the car on the way to a pre-gig sound check the next day Monteiro told me a little of the history of the band: "This band is really an off-shoot of the Asian Jazz All-Stars, an eight or nine-piece band founded by [trumpeter] Terumasa Hino in 1992. It was me, Terumasa Hino, his brother Motohiko on drums, Eugene (Pao), a great saxophonist from Korea called Lee Jung Shik—steeped in Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders—Embong Raharjo from Indonesia on alto sax, Charito on vocals, Paul Candelaria and Benny Sakurai on bass. Tots [Tolentino] joined in '94." How did such a band come together in the first place? "[Terumasa] Hino actually came to each of our countries to audition us," Monteiro explained, "either by jamming or by watching us play."

Terumasa Hino is something of a legendary jazz figure in Japan and throughout Asia. His career began in the late 1950s, collaborating with some of Japan's leading jazz figures of the day, such as pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi, Masabumi Kikuchi and Yuzuro Sera, drummer Hideo Shiraki and saxophonist Hidehiko 'Sleepy' Matsumoto. New York-based since the mid-1970s, Hino established himself early on, collaborating with drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonists Jackie Mclean and Dave Liebman and bassist Sam Jones, amongst others. For Monteiro and the other members of the original Asian Jazz All-Stars, Terumasa Hino remains a revered figure: "He was like the godfather of Asian jazz to us," said Monteiro. "We all have huge respect for him."

The Asian Jazz All-Stars toured regularly for the next seven years, but to this day no official recordings of their concerts have been released. It was essentially a live band: "We must have toured Japan six or seven times," recalled Monteiro, "and we did a tour of North America in '95 that took us to Chicago, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and New York. In Asia, we toured Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Seoul, all over Japan and in Shanghai. They were great times."


Monteiro—a natural raconteur—has plenty of stories about the band and the tours: "The first night we played in Shanghai in 1992 we had all the Politburo members in the front row and the atmosphere was really restrained. This was when China was just opening up," explained Monteiro. "The next night the generals weren't there and everybody was up and dancing, because no matter how hard we were blowing there was always a groove; amazing scenes."

The Asian Jazz All-Stars effectively disbanded when Motohiko Hino—who used to play for saxophonist Joe Henderson—died in 1999: "'Motohiko had a very unique way of playing," said Monterio. "I don't think Terumasa had the heart to continue with the band," The last concert the band played was the Singapore Jazz Festival in 2001. It was an Asian-American All-Stars band with [bassist] Jay Anderson and [drummer] Michael Carvin but there were to be no more concerts after that until 2010, when Monteiro reconvened Pao and Tolentino, with the addition of Hong on drums.

Though the concert set-lists on the AJASPQ's Asian-European tour changed from evening to evening, one composition it always played was "Tiramisu." Tolentino, the song's composer explained: "We were in some restaurant somewhere and we were talking about Terumasa Hino while eating tiramisu. It seemed like a good name for the song. It's a tribute to him."

Singapore concerts/Phone a friend Two of the three Singapore concerts were held in Fuse, a chic bar in the extraordinary, vertiginous Marina Bay Sands complex, a triple tower—55 storeys high— crowned with a 340-meter long boat-shaped edifice. Completed in 2010, at an estimated cost of S$8 billion it has become perhaps the most iconic building in Singapore and employs 10,000 people. It houses a 2,500-room hotel, an 800,000 square foot shopping mall—which a canal runs through—an arts & science museum, theaters, an indoor skating rink, a convention center, half a dozen celebrity-chef restaurants, nightclubs and a 150-meter infinity swimming pool, which sits atop the world's largest cantilevered platform, 70-odd meters above the north tower. It also contains the world's largest atrium casino whose 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines attract around 25,000 punters daily.

The AJASPQ's concerts drew about fifty to a hundred people each evening, proving that the lure of money, shopping-for-fun, fine dining and even ice-skating all have a lot more appeal than a jazz concert. Nevertheless, for those in attendance the two concerts in The Face were highly rewarding. The stage at the Face was small, with Pao and Tolentino perched on one step of a tiny podium, like gulls clinging to a cliff vertical. Monteiro and Hong faced each other at opposite ends of the stage, looking down at the guitarist and saxophonist, and enjoying surer footing.

The AJASPQ's music is inspired by the Hammond organ ensembles of the 1960s, though the exhilarating renditions of organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart's "Wrappin' it Up" and "Acrobat" pointed to a more contemporary approach. All four exhibited outstanding chops—with Pao's fire reminiscent of jazz-rock pioneer Larry Coryell. There was plenty of finesse in the collective playing too, especially notable on a poignant reading of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition "This Guy's In Love" and Monteiro's striking reworking of a Portuguese/Malacca folk song, "Jingli Nona."

The powerful tribute to former band-mate Terumasa Hino, "Tiramisu," closed the first set in a rush of adrenaline, with Tolentino stealing the honors with a ripping solo. During the interval Monteiro spoke of the group's approach, and of his first encounter with the band's saxophonist: "'Tiramisu' captures the sound of the bigger Asian All-Stars band," he said. "We like to say that we have our heads in the clouds but our feet on the ground." Inspired and in complete control of his instrument would aptly describe Tolentino's playing: "I first saw him in '81 or '82 in the Philippines," explained Monteiro, "and I was blown away by how well he played."

The last number of the set was Michael Brecker's "African Skies." Monteiro and Pao had both played with the great tenor saxophonist, and Pao has lasting memories of his encounters with Brecker: "Michael Brecker, [drummer] Jack DeJohnette and [bassist] John Patitucci were playing in Hong Kong and they came to a small jazz club where I was playing," explained Pao. "When I came to make my first album, I thought, 'Who would I really like to have play on my album?' I rang Jack DeJohnette in New York with my heart pounding and he said 'Yes, sure.' Michael too; it was amazing. I couldn't believe it. I guess they liked my playing." Pao's first solo album, By the Company You Keep (Somethin' Else, 1996) featured, Brecker, DeJohnette and Patitucci, as well as veteran bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon and really proved the old saying of "nothing ventured nothing gained."

Sixteen years on, it doesn't seem to have quite sunk in for Pao, and he reflected on his good fortune from another perspective: "CDs don't sell so well these days so I was lucky to record with those guys when I did." Brecker's death in 2007 was a grave loss to the music world, and Pao remembered the most influential of modern saxophonists with fondness: "I ran into Michael many times at festivals around the world and he was always so nice. He wouldn't talk about himself, he wanted to know how you were, what you were up to. I bumped into him at the North Sea Jazz Festival when he was playing with [guitarist] Pat Metheny. They took me around from gig to gig, introducing me to people like [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard. That was amazing. We miss him."

The second performance at The Face the following night broadly followed the same set as the first night, with just a few different numbers including a great performance of "Oasis," a tune Monteiro co-penned with tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts. Monterio and Watts first played together in 1987 and will be embarking on a tour next year to celebrate a quarter of a century of making music together. The set may have similar but the playing was up a notch from the previous night, something that all the musicians agreed was down to the improved sound, courtesy of the arrival of longtime Monteiro soundman, Sunil Kumar Raghupathy.

As General Manager of Primeworks Studios, Raghupathy rarely gets behind the soundboard these days but when Monteiro called him for this gig and the following one in London he couldn't say no: "I have a soft spot for Jeremy," he said. "I started out as an amateur fifteen years ago with him and I learned and improved a lot with him. I've traveled all over the world with him." The main difference from the first concert in The Face was that Raghupathy brought down the levels. The instruments were quieter and the result—the four musicians agreed—was a more relaxed and more nuanced playing. That didn't mean the performance was less powerful, just the opposite in fact, and all the band members were really happy with their individual performances.
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