Friday, October 8, 2010

30 Years of Incognito in TRANSLANTIC R.P.M.

I had to look twice to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me. The new album cover indicated that Incognito's Bluey Maunick had called upon his friends to celebrate 30 years of making musical magic--among them, two vocal stylists that never fail to give me goosebumps: Chaka Khan and Mario Biondi.

Chaka Khan, of course, is a legend in the jazz and R&B scene; listening to her crazy pipes soar and plummet is a treat like no other. Mario Biondi, on the other hand, caught my attention via a video that recently went viral; in it he joined a cappella group Neri Per Caso to reinterpret WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES with his signature tone--rich, deeply dark, and moist. The thought of these artists lending their voices to the latest project of my favorite acid jazz band was just too much to handle.

TRANSATLANTIC R.P.M.'s opening track does not disappoint. Here Chaka Khan and Mario Biondi reboot the Boz Scaggs classic LOWDOWN (people of my generation, rejoice!) with a healthy serving of soulful funk. Other tracks are equally delightful: 1975, a tribute to the hit makers of that era; THE SONG, a catchy mid-tempo tune co-written by Chaka Khan; YOUR SUN MY SKY with Maysa Leak's indelible vocals; and LET'S FALL IN LOVE AGAIN featuring dance and R&B performer John Christian Urich.

Of course, the also album highlights the talents of mainstays Tony Momrelle and Joy Rose. And as an added treat, the final of 16 tracks has Bluey himself taking on the lead vocals in a curious 5/4 melody titled TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

With the wealth of talent participating in TRANSATLANTIC R.P.M., the album is indeed a celebration worthy of Incognito's 30 years in the industry. And while I wish there were more dance tracks in the project and stronger, more memorable melodies overall, any Incognito fan cannot be without this album. Listen to LOWDOWN here, and know why:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Yellowjackets Keep Manila Warm

Members of the Yellowjackets turned quizzically to each other during their gig at the Westin Philippine Plaza last February 28 when the sound of explosions began escalating by the second. Almost in unison, people in the audience cried, "firecrackers," which apparently were being released to mark some celebration in Manila Bay.

Saxman Bob Mintzer, busy fidgeting with his music cables, sighed in relief as he and the rest of the quartet continued to fill the Sunset Pavilion with the musical buzz that only the world-renowned Yellowjackets can create.

While these photos can never duplicate the rush of listening to the jazz quartet live for the first time, they nonetheless try to capture the kaleidoscopic moods of the band members and their music.

Bob Mintzer on saxophone, Russel Ferrante on keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and back with group after years, William Kennedy on drums. Together, the Yellowjackets warmed up the crowd with their own brand of musical fireworks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Brand New Heavies conquer not Manila

In 1997, high school chums George and Erwin went rummaging through CDs with me in a quaint NYC shop when George had an a-ha moment and snatched what he thought was the perfect find: SHELTER, the then latest album of acid jazz band The Brand New Heavies (BNH). Shamefully, I had not been acquainted with their work. But because he knew I had adored Incognito, George made a beeline to the cash register and convinced me to pull out my wallet.

I have not regretted purchasing the CD, and have in fact collected all the BNH albums before and after SHELTER. So you can imagine my elation when I heard that the group was Manila-bound last February. I was naturally among the first to get tickets to their show at the Westin Philippine Plaza.

My anticipation was high. After all, I had caught the Incognito show at the same venue two years ago, and had remained ecstatic months later. And with N'dea Davenport on lead vocals (others have taken on the role, with less success) for the concert, I was certainly pumped. But strangely, after the hour-and-a-half performance, I somehow felt let down.

Don't get me wrong. BNH delivered the kind of retro funk that was expected of them. The energy was high, and we were all on our feet. They performed all their classic and current hits with much bravado. All in all, theirs was a class act--but an act nonetheless.

Most of those who had been to the Incognito concert felt it too. There was a sincerity that was absent in BNH's performance--a missing willingness to connect. And while the songs were note-perfect, they execution seemed uninspired. In contrast, Incognito demonstrated a soulfulness that was not only felt in their complex strains and rhythms, but more so in the animated stories they shared behind each song, their electricity on stage, and their deep appreciation for the audience that stood mesmerized by their sound. All were borne out of a spiritual connection they acknowledged--one that they nurture amongst each other, with the music they play, and with the great Source of their talent.

So will I continue to add to my collection of BNH CDs? Why of course. My own work has been influenced by theirs, and that's not going to stop. But I suppose the show was a reminder of what music could be minus purpose.

Below, some of my photos from the show and two of my favorite BNH tracks, one classic, one current.

The incomparable N'dea Davenport steals the show with her delicious vocals.

Jan Kincaid manages to sneak in some lead vocals while pounding on the drums.

Andrew Levy brings on the funk with some signature slaps.

Ever the showman, Simon Bartholomew wows the crowd with fancy riffs and a flashy costume to boot.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are we ready for season 9?

Ready or not, American Idol season 9 hits Philippine TV on Wednesday, January 13, and once again audiences will be treated to a mash-up of talent and non-talent vying for a spot in today's global music scene if not a shot at penetrating pop culture.

All right, so the show has been a personal guilty pleasure for years. There is, after all, something wickedly delightful about feasting on tone deafs who sincerely think they can make it big in the business. But then again, there is also exhilaration in the discovery of young, unassuming talent. I am counting on this season to provide a healthy dose of both, even without past Idol judge Paula Abdul and her insanely entertaining commentaries.

In truth, what continues to amaze me about the reality show is how its format allows the ordinary consumer of music to somehow dictate the shape of the industry with the every vote cast during the season. Choosing the world's next pop star is literally left in the hands of texters. Now who among us understand the Americans' motivations in choosing whom they choose? And how often have we complained about contestants eliminated too soon? Certainly, there have been hits and misses in previous seasons. But such is the thrill of the game.

Check out the 1st week sales of the debut albums of these Idol champs and runners-up:

The show's momentum in season 2 and its popularity in season 4 helped catapult sales for finalists Studdard, Aiken, Underwood and Bice, but the eventual non-performance of Studdard's and Bice's works caused the artists their record contracts. Season 5 has reflected the highest TV ratings in Idol history, and both Hicks and McPhee (champ and runner-up, respectively) garnered fairly remarkable 1st week sales. But their numbers plateaued too soon, causing their record deals to be revoked, too.

Since season 5, ratings of the reality show have been slowing down steadily, but Idol alums Cook and Archuleta of season 7 and Lambert of season 8 have defied the odds, posting more than decent sales for their debut albums. Last year's winner Kris Allen, however, has not been so successful, as he now holds the record for the lowest sales in history from an Idol winner.

I think we all realize that the show, its judges, and the voting public can do only so much in discovering pop music's next star. While we can all identify what we like or do not like in a contestant's 2-minute performance, the fact remains that stardom depends as much on vocal prowess as it does on the singer's personal charm on stage, the craftiness of his or her music producers, the shrewdness of the business manager, the buzz worthiness of his or her public persona, and so many other factors.

But none of these factors can ever curb the kick I get from speculating nonetheless who will be the next American Idol.

American Idol season 9 premieres on Wednesday, January 13, 6pm on Star World.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Do you hear what I hear?

I would be in shambles if we celebrated Christmas without song. In a season that is potentially quite stressful, holiday music is among my only sources of solace. So with just a few hours before we hit the 25th of December, here's to share with you some of the Christmas albums that have continued to keep me sane and safe through the years.

Undoubtedly my favorite Christmas album of all time. I had been a fan of The Swingle Singers' earlier holiday collection and jumped at the prospect of getting this more recent one when fellow chorister Tonet Santana volunteered to get me copy while he was in the U.S. With 21 tracks, THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS embraces the narrative of the Nativity from all possible angles and reflects all the shades of the season, from somber to grandiose, in a cappella. O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL and MAGNIFICAT are staggering beautiful, and the group's SILENT NIGHT never fails to make me cry.

Maybe not technically a Christmas collection, the album is a modern take on Handel's Oratorio, and traces the lush history of African-American music. I first read about the Quincy Jones's project in the early 90s and was flabbergasted by the roster of artists involved in it: Stevie Wonder, Take 6, Patti Austin, David Pack, Al Jarreau, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, The Yellow Jackets, to name a few. My personal favorites are AND HE SHALL PURIFY and I KNOW THAT MY REDEEMER LIVETH, each with distinct R&B flavors, both rousing in totally different ways. I have three copies of the CDs--the two that I've lent out have never returned.

College classmate and songwriter Vincent Wongaiham played this non-stop during those months we were working on our thesis with Sandra Herrero-Gonzalvez and Jo-Ann Sto. Tomas-Reyes. Festive and full of cheer, the album conjures images of Christmas pageants and Dorothy Hamill on ice at the Rockefeller Plaza, what with the tubular bells and sleigh bells plus the dense orchestral arrangements in most of the tracks. I must have been influenced by the album sound when writing the musical we produced in college. Thanks to Karen and Richard, we got an A+.

The album had an underground following when I was in college; campus choirs kept requesting scores of ONE SMALL CHILD and STARLIGHT, among others. Coincidentally, I was then producing Bukas Palad's Christmas album and must have been swayed by the rich choral arrangements that were tapered for more pop-sounding choirs, and evident in AN EVENING IN DECEMBER. The sound was and still is both stirring and refreshing.

Maybe 5 years back, fellow musician Gino Torres gifted me with this album from one of our favorite vocal stylists, Kenny Rankin. Of course, I never told Gino that I had already owned a copy; besides, I was perfectly fine with owning two. With just man and guitar, the album manages to give new meaning to traditional Christmas songs and carols, infusing jazzy vibe and sometimes melancholic rhythm to such classic melodies as WE THREE KINGS and LITTLE DRUMMER BOY--and mind you, these are songs I had previously no liking for. Ooh, I am still mourning Rankin's recent passing.

This was my lucky find last year. I already had one of Amy Grant's holiday albums (which dear friend Reggie Regala borrowed, then lost but replaced immediately), and was elated to come across this collection compiling the artist's favorite Christmas tracks and some new ones to boot. My favorite BREATH OF HEAVEN and the first version I ever heard of the now-too-popular GROWN UP CHRISTMAS LIST made the cut. Equally moving for me beneath drums, synthesizers and electric guitars are I NEED A SILENT NIGHT and A CHRISTMAS TO REMEMBER.

I borrowed a cassette of this album from choirmate Lourdes Uranza-Jungnitsch and never returned it. Absolutely fabulous! Produced nearly 40 years ago, the music continues to intrigue and uplift with the magical arrangements of carols from around the world--all through scatting and without any of the original lyrics being uttered. Particularly fascinating for me are the medleys that take the listener through musical movements, rising and falling and rising again to depict the myriad of emotions that Christmas brings. I learned recently from friend and musical genius, Palan Reyes, that a CD of the album now exists.

All right. I guess I lied. Pasko Na is my favorite Christmas album of all time. But I am biased; you see the tracks are written, arranged, and recorded by people I love, and those who have shaped my perception of music and Christmas. They are a big reason why my holidays shall be forever filled with song.

A merry, merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Basia: It's That Girl Again

Back in the 80s, when our band used to play one of the music halls along Annapolis St., we would open our first set with a Matt Bianco crowd favorite, HALF A MINUTE. It was easy to see why the regulars at the lounge liked it--the song was a novel treat; through it, the U.K. band had successfully redefined the pop jazz sound with its contemporary take on samba, and had showcased one of the most distinctive voices the music world was to hear--an intriguing voice that came with an equally intriguing name: Basia Trzetrzelewska.

Her English wasn't perfect and her tone was almost reedy. But like an oboe in a sea of richer, fuller timbres, she stood out gracefully especially with her signature multi-layered harmonies. Soon enough, Basia was a star on her own, recording a successful string of hits through her first two solo albums: TIME AND TIDE and LONDON WARSAW NEW YORK in 1987 and 1989, respectively. Five years later, she churned out THE SWEETEST ILLUSION, which although was not as applauded as her initial projects, remained true to her Latin-laced vibe and rich rhythms. It is still among my all-time favorites.

However, the period that followed seemed to reflect some serious drought. A live project and three compilations followed, but sorely missing was a studio album, which fans like I were seeking. You can therefore imagine my glee when I discovered and secured her newest CD launched earlier this year, 15 years after her last studio album.

Titled IT'S THAT GIRL AGAIN, the CD is indeed a comeback. It is a return of that same voice, vocal style, and distinct musicality. At 54 (Basia turns 55 on September 30), the artist sounds as fresh and vibrant as she did on TIME AND TIDE, and yet her music somehow feels the same. The experience of listening to her CD is thus most comforting. Will the new tracks climb the charts in the same way that PROMISES, NEW DAY FOR YOU, and CRUISING FOR BRUISING did? Perhaps not. We have a new set of ears listening these days. But old fogeys like me will be most happy.

But what makes me happier is that Basia will be in Manila on October 21, 8:30 pm, at the Araneta Coliseum for a one-night performance. Apart from singing her popular favorites, the artist is expected to give us a sampling of her latest tracks (I'm guessing the album will finally be available in Manila by then). And while I have a difficulty choosing my personal favorite, I am predicting that the one I'm posting here will have a pretty good following. Here's A GIFT.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Echoes of Kenny Rankin

I do not remember why Manoling Francisco, Jandi Arboleda and I insisted to include PUSSYWILLOWS CATTAILS among the songs in ECHOES, a song book we were asked to put together in 1979 by the Knights for Christ for use in masses at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School. Maybe we were just too young to understand what constituted liturgical music (we were barely 13 years old). Maybe we thought it possessed a lovely meditative melody. Maybe we felt that listening to it was a divine experience.

But I do remember growing in a house where the song and other tracks popularized by Kenny Rankin would play frequently from my sister's phonograph. I would laze around on the carpet after chores, staring at the ceiling but fully absorbing the haunting tunes of HOUSE OF GOLD, WHEN SUNNY GETS BLUE, and THROUGH THE EYE OF THE EAGLE. And when my sister gave birth to my niece, Selene, it was no surprise that among the first songs that the kid learned to sing was HERE'S THAT RAINY DAY.

Soon, a sale in the 80s at the music bar of Ali Mall allowed me to start my own collection of Kenny Rankin albums. And so with my little savings, I purchased the cassettes of LIKE A SEED, SILVER MORNING, THE KENNY RANKIN ALBUM, and AFTER THE ROSES all at once. But more recently, I was ecstatic to receive from fellow musician Gino Torres, Rankin's A CHRISTMAS ALBUM, and to discover on a shelf of hard-to-find CDs, the artist's covers of Brazilian music in the album HERE IN MY HEART.

Apart from Rankin's buoyant and beautiful melodies, what has drawn me to the artist all these years is his unique timbre--one so calm yet penetrative. It is rich without being flamboyant, unassuming and yet inspiring. Supple and pristine. His tenor is as innocent and playful as a child's (he was discovered by his music teacher who felt his rendition of O HOLY NIGHT in a Christmas pageant was lovely). And his personal interpretation of tunes allows us to experience tired songs in a whole new vibrant light (when John Lennon and Paul McCartney were inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, McCartney requested that Rankin represent the duo by virtue of Rankin's exquisite recordings of BLACKBIRD and PENNY LANE).

Rankin himself reveals the secret. "My interpretation of the songs is purely emotional," he explains. "I've been accused of straying from the melody, but when I sing, I'm feeling, not thinking."

It is a pity that Kenny Rankin has passed away (he died last June 7, just 3 weeks after his lung cancer was detected). I never did get to catch any of his performances in Manila, and I had always yearned to watch him live. Luckily I have my cassettes intact. Oh yes, and a few of my own songs have been inspired by the man's talents. I guess he breathes through some of us still.

Below, find two live performances from Kenny Rankin. The first is PEACEFUL in the late 60s, a song that became a huge hit for Helen Reddy. The second is a fairly recent version of his classic, HAVEN'T WE MET.