Friday, October 17, 2008

My Evening With The ScoLo Quartet in Manila

While queuing at the entrance to the Rockwell tent to get my wrist stamped for the John Scofield & Joe Lovano (ScoLo) Quartet concert last October 16, a guy behind me muttered, "You know when what you're watching is a jazz show--the dudes come much earlier than the chicks."

There may be some truth to the observation. These intimate mainstream jazz gigs are indeed dominated by males, many of whom are musicians themselves teaching or studying at the conservatory and performing in ensembles, or professionals in bands doing the nightly city circuit. Others are enthusiasts
toting their cameras (no lighters or pen lights) and well-kept posters, magazines LPs and CDs of their idols, hoping for an autograph later.

I myself have become a fan of these events and have enjoyed the relaxed and quaint atmosphere they bring. Outside the tent are food stalls vending sausages and finger foods, beer and a selection of wines. Nearly everyone aims to get a light buzz before the opening act. But for now, they check out the posters, shirts,
CDs and other merchandise waiting to be bought.

Inside the venue, people pick their spots and wave to fellow guests. Everyone seems to know each other. Perhaps they've recorded at the same studio or have met during some other jazz fest. They catch up on industry gossip (did you know Herbie Hancock is coming over next year?) and await the announcement for the show to begin.

And it does. The crowd bursts into cheers when legendary guitarist John Scofield and saxman Joe Lovano emerge with super talented artists acoustic bassist Matt Penman and drummer Matt Wilson. Cameras click away, of course (as does mine). How often does one, after all, be in the presence of such music royalty?

As I said, the show is pretty is intimate, and I in my front row seat cannot help
but marvel at the performers before me. John Scofield is considered one of the 'big three" along with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell among the current crop of jazz guitarists. A master of improvisation, he has a distinct style that sits comfortably between post bop, funk-edged jazz, and R&B. Inspired by rock and blues players, Scofield picked up his first guitar at age 11, and eventually attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. After recording and touring with such heavyweights as Chet Baker, George Duke and Charles Mingus, Scofield joined Miles Davis, planting himself securely in the foreground of jazz consciousness as a composer and instrumentalist.

Today, aside from touring with his own group for most parts of the year, he is an Adjunct Professor of Music at the New York University.

Born to a family of brass blowers, Joe Lovano's exposure to jazz and the saxophone was early and constant. He began playing the alto sax at 5,
switching to a tenor a few years later. At 16, he began working professionally
as a musician, playing the clubs (often substituting for his dad) and performing with Motown cover bands. He eventually got to save enough to get himself through college also at Berklee.

After years of jamming and recording in the U.S. and Europe with some of the most gifted artists on the planet, Lovano met vocalist and dancer Judi Silvano, with whom he would make a lasting collaboration (today, they live together in upstate New York). Then in 1989, Lovano's next high profile gig brought him more national and international attention--and that was with John Scofield's Quartet.

It is easy to sense that both men are long time friends and collaborators. Without much of a nod or a tap of the foot to signal the other, they just know where each one is in the lavish pieces of music where one may quite easily lose himself. But such is the irony of jazz and improvisation: Scofield and Lovano do lose themselves in the music. Buried in the rhythm and harmony, they each slip into a private zone, tapping into some hidden thought or feeling, and pushing this out via a riff on the guitar or a scale on the saxophone. They are immersed in their own realms, oblivious to the bobbing heads in the crowd but sensitive to each other's world. And when their worlds do meet, the result is sheer genius.

Everything comes together with the musical contributions of the two Matts. Matt Penman is a New Zealander who first embraced an acoustic bass when he was 14.  Like Scofield and Lovano, he is a Berklee alumnus, moving soon after to New York where he manages a busy schedule of teaching and performing. Now an established member of the SFJazz Collective, Penman and 7 others have devoted their efforts to presenting each other's works as well as their arrangements of other jazz artists' music. The group is currently featuring the songs of Joe Lovano, among others.

Voted #1 Rising Star Drummer in 2005 by the Downbeat Critic's Poll for the 3rd year in a row, Matt Wilson became mesmerized with the drums after seeing Buddy Rich on the Lucy Show when he was in third grade. He finished college at Wichita State University, and moved on to Boston and then to New York, playing with the likes of Cecil McBee, Lee Konitz and Fred Hersch. Since 2001, Wilson has become most associated with Arts & Crafts, a quartet formed by Wilson recognized seriously for their fun jazz recordings and gigs.

Mere meters away, all four musicians of the ScoLo Quartet hypnotized the
audience with their repertoire of intense bluesy jazz, their acute sense of syncopation, and a melodic kind of dissonance that intrigues yet deeply quenches. A particular favorite was a piece in 6/4 meter that had everyone keeping time.

The main theme was just joyous, and its rhythm made our hearts skip a beat. Each of the four shined in their solos, as they demonstrated an effortless dexterity that was magnified by the infectious euphoria on their faces--we too could only smile with them.

In the end, members of the ScoLo Quartet proved to be the extremely passionate musicians I had envisioned them to be. Granted Manila was just a pit stop in their Asia Pacific tour (we were not even listed in their published 
itinerary), and the Rockwell Tent
is not such a gigantic venue, each played like he would in any music hall, with the bravura of a celebrated concert star, the humility of a performer who salutes the talents of his bandmates, and the jubilation of an artist who has no agenda but to share his brand of jazz to us with an ear to listen.

After the show, the four completed our experience by engaging us in chitchat, and granting our requests for them to sign autographs on music memorabilia we had collected over the years.

As expected, local jazz guitarists and saxophonists (Tots Tolentino, whom I had worked with for Bukas Palad and Raul Banzon, whom I had performed with in high school, to name just 2), fell in line themselves to meet their idols. At the end of the day, amidst the ScoLo Quartet, we are all but fans.

The concert organized by the Philippine International Jazz & Arts Festival was merely a prelude of things to come. Early next year, in a festival beginning February 27, the Philippines will get to hear the enthralling music of Herbie Hancock, Dave Koz, Flora Purim and Airto, The New York Voices, and Ivan Lins among other jazz greats. 

I am certain I will be among the first to purchase tickets (as I was this year). Maybe the shows will be very intimate again, and the queues not too long. But because the guests are such phenomenal talents, a big part of me wishes we could all be there.

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