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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Of Idol champs and runners-up

Opinions regarding the American Idol finale results have never been as polarized as they are this season. On the one hand, many are frustrated by how an obviously polished performer with all the vocal tricks up his sleeve could be trumped by an unassuming, guitar-toting neophyte. On the other hand, others are declaring that the overly theatrical glam-rock finalist could never sell as many records as the more radio-friendly, all-American boy whose every note drips with pure heart and soul.

Me? I've already absorbed that Kris Allen is America's new Idol, and Adam Lambert, his runner-up. It's time to move on and watch how these guys fare in the real world, away from reality TV. They do have big shoes to fill, after the relatively successful reign of the two Davids, Cook and Archuleta, considered among the Idol alums who earned the most profit in 2008 (with Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Jennifer Hudson above them).

Fresh from their performance at the Mall of Asia (MOA) concert grounds last week, last year's winners have so far sold 1.8 million albums combined since they debuted their CDs in November 2008 (based on album sales, Cook is the 7th best selling alumnus in Idol history, and Archuleta, the 14th even if their CDs have enjoyed the shortest time on the shelves)--a pretty good showing versus Season 6's Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis, who since 2007 have sold just 1.3 million, and better still than Season 5's Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee with 1.1 million albums in close to 3 years. 

After the Cook-Archuleta finals, it was evident where the challenges lay for these two. Cook had cultivated a clearly defined musical sense, but needed to develop a tighter, more personable connection with his growing set of fans. Archuleta, teeming with charm, needed however to establish a sound that would make him current and hip. But months of touring and collaborating with top-rate producers have placed them at the top of their game, and their concert in Manila proved this.

Because Cook's vibe is rich and dark, it was easy for him to get lost in his own performance at the MOA, with songs like LOST and DECLARATION from his album, and Fleetwood Mac's LITTLE LIES. Yet, he had enough presence of mind to draw his audience in, working out the crowd with his spiels and interacting with everyone by occasionally stepping off the stage and toward the spectators. And though he admitted belting out songs which most in audience had never heard, he rocked it, proving to be a most seasoned performer in so little time.

Archuleta, meanwhile, rallied the audience with his unique teen pop rock style. Too shy perhaps to engage the crowd and rushing between songs, he nonetheless enthralled with his velvety voice, flawless riffs and eloquent keyboards. Easy to the ear crowd faves were CRUSH and ANGELS from his CD, Vanessa Carlton's A THOUSAND MILES, and a soon-to-be-released dance track, ZERO GRAVITY.

What about our newest idols? It might take a long while before they come anywhere near Season 4's Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice, who together have sold 10.4 million CDs to date (9.6M of which is Underwood's alone). But the momentum is with Allen and Lambert. After a sharp drop in Idol popularity since the time of Hicks and McPhee, record sales of and voting for Idol contestants have steadily increased in recent years (100 million voters this season finale, 38M reportedly from Allen's home state of Arkansas). 

Lambert may have to tone down his act while preserving the essence of his musical style, playing less on technique and building popular emotional rapport. Allen will have to push the envelope on his guitar act and reinvent the genre in the same way (and perhaps even more forward looking) as Jason Mraz has. Even more than the entire Season 8, this will be exciting to watch.

And the remaining idols of the season? It's noteworthy that although Hicks's and McPhee's CDs haven't quite sold as well as expected, Season 5's alums have collectively been the most successful in Idol history with 7 of them in the top 20 in terms of record sales to date. Chris Daughtry is #4, Kelly Pickler #8, Taylor Hicks #11, Elliot Yamin #15, Bucky Covington #16, Katherine McPhee #18, and Mandisa #20. Can this year's contestants top that? Now that the season is over, we can all wait and see.

Here's the top 20 list of successful Idol alumni based on record sales to date:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

That strange logo after Martin Nievera's version of the Philippine national anthem

Those of us who sat glued to the edge of our seats awaiting the Pacquiao-Hatton match on TV might have been caught off-guard by the logo that appeared after Martin Nievera sang his rendition of the Philippine national anthem at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas last May 2 (May 3, Philippine time).

Pictured above, the logo belongs to the National Historical Institute (NHI), an arm in the culture and development agenda of the government, whose mission includes promoting Philippine history and cultural heritage through research, dissemination, conservation, sites management and heraldry works. It is responsible for the conservation and preservation of the country's historical legacies, and includes among its tasks ensuring the proper use of the national anthem in accordance with Republic Act 8491 (Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines). I guess the logo simply indicates that Nievera's version is acceptable, unlike others including those sung in previous Pacquiao fights.

It will be recalled that Councilors in Davao raised their eyebrows after Sarah Geronimo sang the Lupang Hinirang before the November 2006 battle between Pacquiao and Erik Morales. The slow and kundiman-like rendition was seen as a bastardization of the national anthem, prompting Councilor Nilo Abellera to file a resolution reminding Davaoenos on the proper way of singing the song.

But Geronimo is not the only one to put her spin on the anthem. In the first Pacquiao-Morales fight (March 2005), and in the Pacquiao-Larios match (July 2006), Lani Misalucha and Bituin Escalante, respectively, also took liberties with the song. Meanwhile, in the January 2006 re-match between Pacquiao and Morales, Jennifer Bautista fell awkwardly off-key in the anthem's last lyric. And who could forget Christian Bautista's abbreviated version during the Gerry Penalosa vs. Bernabe Concepcion event in 2007? The string of events prodded NHI's Teodoro Atienza to remind Kyla (whom Pacquiao handpicked to interpret the Lupang Hinirang during the October 2007 rematch between Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera) about the mandatories of singing the national song.

But what are these mandatories? R.A. 8491 specifies that the Lupang Hinirang "shall be in accordance with the musical arrangement and composition of Julian Felipe." This means the anthem should carry a brisk and martial mood and tempo; after all, the original music was intended to be a march in duple time (2/4 meter)--and thus the emotional kundiman approaches are deemed unfaithful to the original spirit of the song. If properly rendered, the anthem should sit comfortably between 53 to 60 seconds. It should also be sung in the national language regardless of where it is played. Apart from these, R.A. 8491 prohibits the performing of the anthem for mere recreation, amusement, or entertainment except for the following occasions:

1. International competitions where the Philippines is the host or has a representative;
2. Local competitions;
3. During the "signing on" and "signing off" of radio broadcasting and television stations; and
4. Before the initial and last screening of films and before the opening of theater performances.

So apparently the NHI prescreened and approved Nievera's rendition of the national anthem. Good for the artist as singers who do not follow the guidelines set for the use of the song can be fined P50,000 or be imprisoned for 1 year, or both. But whether I liked the version or not is a different story. For now, you be the judge:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kate McGarry's MAN OF GOD

Throughout the Holy Week, I kept singing in my mind MAN OF GOD--partly because it had been quite some time since I last played it on my iPod, and partly because it seemed appropriate given the time of year. The tune, however, isn't a liturgical one; but it's an insightful piece from jazz artist and recent Grammy nominee, Kate McGarry. 

Thanks to Laine, who brought home McGarry's CD (IF LESS IS MORE, NOTHING IS EVERYTHING) from Hong Kong, I have been introduced to this acclaimed artist who has a rather unique approach to music.  She says, "I've always been drawn to the space of silence between the notes. It is in the silence that the secrets of songs reveal themselves." In MAN OF GOD, McGarry finds purpose in a world of illnesses, and expresses her discovery through her less is more philosophy in music.

Below are the lyrics to the song, and the music track itself. 
Listen between the lines. 
Happy Easter to all!

Kate McGarry

How do you know a man of God?
Can he cure your ills?
Does he quote the Bible?

How do you know a man of God?
Can he read your mind?
Does he feed the poor?

How do you know when someone's heart
Is bending on his knees through the night and day?
How can you tell whose prayer it was
That kept the child fed or war at bay?

Where will you seek a man of God?
Behind long, black robes?
Or those stained glass windows?

Where will you seek a man of God?
Would you look next door?
Over your big, white fences?

And if you find a holy one,
Will you beg forgiveness for you human flaws?
I'm praying for a miracle so we can learn
That love is the one, the one true law.

What if you are a man of God?
Would you recognize yourself without a halo?
What if the love you fear to show is enough 
To feed a world of starving souls?

You can feed them.
Will you feed them?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Debunking the Grammy Curse

Tomorrow, John Legend performs at the Araneta Coliseum as part of his highly successful EVOLVER world tour--proof that there is life after Grammy's Best New Artist Award.

Many consider the award to be a curse perhaps because some winners have never been able to duplicate the successes of their debut records. Legend won the award in 2006 for his GET LIFTED album, particularly for the track ORDINARY PEOPLE (thankfully, he decided to keep the song for himself after initially considering it for a Black Eyed Peas project). But 2 more albums and 6 Grammys later, Legend is going strong.

Maybe the supposed curse more accurately pertains to the likes of Milli Vanilli, who won in 1990 but were stripped of the award because...well we all know why.

Check out below the list of Best New Artists ever since the award was created in 1960. Any protests? I have a few.  

Meanwhile, I've got the Green Light to head to Cubao tomorrow. If you can't catch the show, pick up the album: EVOLVER, from Columbia Records.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Whatever happened to these Idol alums?

Today, Dolly Parton sound- and look-alike Alexis Grace was eliminated from Season 8 of American Idol--and not even the show's judges believed the petite singer from Tennessee was worth saving. This is not to say of course that Grace was without talent; she was after all likened to Kelly Clarkson early on in the competition. Which makes one ask: what happens to contestants like her who do not win the reality show's plum prize? 

Several entries back, we talked about Season 6 third placer Melinda Doolittle's debut album. Now here's a peak at what other Idol alums have been up to.

According to friend and Idol fanatic Leilah Alarilla-Tadlip, this Season 5 seventh placer (bowing out to winner Taylor Hicks) shed off 75 lbs after judge Simon Cowell had commented that the show would need a bigger stage to accommodate the singer. Since her stint on Idol, Mandisa has released a contemporary gospel album (TRUE BEAUTY, 2007), which debuted #1 on the Hot Christian Albums Chart and was nominated for both a Grammy and a Dove Award. Late last year the artist launched a Christmas CD (IT'S CHRISTMAS, 2008), and is about to release her next album, FREEDOM on March 24. A sample of her new pop/dance Christian single MY DELIVERER can be heard on her official website: MANDISA.

The once junior high school music teacher took home 7th place in Season 4 (when Carrie Underwood walked away with the top prize), and was eliminated after his performance of Earth, Wind & Fire's SEPTEMBER. Though recording occasionally, the artist has taken a more active role on stage, having played Collins in the touring cast of Jonathan Larson's iconic rock musical, RENT. He then went on to play Jesus in the Syrcause Stage production of Stephen Schwartz's award-winning work, GODSPELL, which ended its run last December 28.

The youngest contestant on Season 5, Bennett eventually landed the fifth spot on American Idol, being edged out by 4th placer and now superstar, Chris Daughtry. After touring with the other finalists, she immediately worked on her debut album, dishing out PRINCESS P (after the monicker given to her by Ryan Seacrest) in 2007. The project, which carried an urban electronic vibe, failed to showcase the jazz style Bennett was known for, and as such, the album bombed. The artist then recorded a holiday album (A ROYAL CHRISTMAS) in 2008, this time with a classic R&B and acoustic jazz feel. In a few months, Bennett will be releasing her next studio album, opting again for a classic jazz musical direction. Bennett gave birth last October to her daughter, Egypt.

The Season 6 Idol finalist who vowed to make David Hasselhoff weep (the celebrity did when Taylor Hicks won), Chris Sligh was 10th place when Jordin Sparks was the eventual champion. Immediately after the show, Sligh, a devout Christian, signed up with the same management company that has handled Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, and with the independent label Brash Music, recorded the album, RUNNING BACK TO YOU in May 2008. As a result of the project, USA Today called him, "the most musically ambitious Idol to date." Since then, he has been touring relentlessly. For more on the artist, visit his personal blog: CHRIS SLIGH.

Lastly, we go to Makati-born and Hawaii-based singer Camile Velasco, who took 10th spot in Season 3 when Fantasia Barrino won (and fellow Fil-Am Jasmine Trias was 3rd). After touring with fellow Idols, Velasco appeared in many guest performances across the U.S., mostly for Filipino audiences in events such as the Fil-Am Unity Jam, Fiesta Filipinas, and Lumpiapalooza. Through these stints, she has performed with Gary Valenciano, Martin Nievera, and the Aegis band. She has also fronted for her personal idol, Lauryn Hill. In 2008, Velasco premiered a weekly YouTube show titled, CamileTV where she covers such pop acts as Alicia Keys, Indie Arie, and Amy Winehouse. Later in the year, she recorded her first single, GUAVA JELLY, and her debut album, KOY, is set for release in 2009. View Velsaco's YouTube channel here: CAMILE VELASCO.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Amazon prices the imported album at $57.99--pretty steep, especially because Filipinos can purchase Monday Michiru's MY EVER CHANGING MOODS locally for just P350.00 or $7.

I have always thought that the Japanese-American's distinct brand of 70's-inspired soul-funk appealed to such a minority in the Philippines, but I guess Universal Records saw the wisdom of bringing Michiru's recording to Manila and promoting it locally just recently. The artist has had close to 20 albums since the mid-90s, but as I recall, only 2 have found their way here: OPTIMISTA (1999) and now, MY EVER CHANGING MOODS (2007).

Like all her past projects, MY EVER CHANGING MOODS showcases the artist's passion for acid jazz and dance, blending elements of R&B, and club while injecting some Brazilian groove. This time, however, Michiru chooses to cover the works of artists who have somehow influenced her music; and the range is diverse: Barry White (I'M GONNA LOVE YOU JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE BABE), Patrice Rushen (REMIND ME), The Police (WALKING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS), Blondie (CALL ME--samba style), Cyndi Lauper TRUE COLORS), and Style Council (MY EVER CHANGING MOODS), among others.

Some may find Michiru's usual loungey, underground electronic vibe a tad too psychedelic, but this album practices much restraint (perhaps a reason why Universal brought it to the Philippines); nonetheless, I still prefer to listen to this CD any other of Michiru's after I've had a drink or two. My particular faves are her sexy cosmopolitan take on Barry White, and her dizzying vocals on ALDEIA DE OGUM from Brazilian singer Joyce. But truly, all tracks carry her inventive signature. And this is perhaps what makes Monday Michiru such an artist--though all covers of other artists, the songs in the CD reflect no one else's ever changing moods but her own.

Check out the title track, MY EVER CHANGING MOODS:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Feels Like 1991 Again: Kevyn Lettau's and Peter Sprague's WHAT IS ENOUGH?

On my way to work 2 weeks ago, I tuned in to 106.7 FM and was greeted by two of my favorite sounds: Kevyn Lettau's voice and Peter Sprague's guitar. I was certain the radio station was playing music from Lettau's 1991 album, Braziljazz--except for the life of me, I couldn't recognize the tune.

Odd, I thought, as I was well-acquainted with the CD, and had often recommended it to those with an ear for new Brazilian-inspired music performed austerely--with only voice, acoustic guitar, and hand-held percussions to breathe magic into the Latin melodies.

Fortunately, after the track had played its final chord, the announcer on board identified the song to be a fresh cut from Lettau's and Sprague's first album as a duo (Braziljazz was with Lettau, Sprague, as well as Lettau's husband, percussionist Michael Shapiro), WHAT IS ENOUGH, released late last year. 

A trip to MUSIC ONE led me to the CD--a compilation of 12 delightful tracks traversing Brazilian samba and jazz swing, all recorded with that unplugged feeling and organic rhythm I have so enjoyed with Braziljazz. Joyful are are covers of John Mayer's  BELIEF, Stevie Wonder's HAVE A TALK WITH GOD, and Antonio Carlos Jobim's WATERS OF MARCH. But equally divine are WHAT IS ENOUGH (Lettau's collaboration with guitarist Mike Stern, who recently performed an instrumental version at the Rockwell Tent during the Philippine International Jazz and Arts Festival), DRAWN TO YOU (written by Lettau and Yelowjackets keyboardist Russel Ferrante), as well as Lettau's and Sprague's CANTAR. Oh, and Lettau's fans will be excited about her new and minimalist rendition of the classic, SUNLIGHT.

All in all, WHAT IS ENOUGH is a wonderful CD to invest in. And as usual, Lettau's followers in the Philippines and Japan are among the first to be exposed to it (as of last checking, amazon has no record that the CD even exists). The music and talent are as fresh as they were in 1991, and the the experience of listening, as glorious as being re-acquainted with a dear, old friend.

Here is that track I first heard from the album, HEED MY CALL:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Seal's Soul

It was panned by critics. Labeled an innocuous collection, even an unnecessary record. But innocuous and unnecessary to whom?

True, Seal is the not the first to resurrect classic hits we have all come to love--Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, Queen Latifa, even Amy Winehouse have all done so. Perhaps this alone was reason for skeptics to be wary of Seal's most recent offering, SOUL.  They suspected that because the artist's 2007 album SYSTEM did not take off, Seal desperately went the tried and tested rout of recording covers. Forget that the project was placed in the hands of mega producer David Foster and that the singer was backed-up by a full orchestra; concept alone, the album seemed to mirror an artist's creative drought.

Add to this the fact that Seal chose to remake a playlist of the most iconic, soulful tunes: Sam Cooke's A CHANGE IS GONNA COME, James Brown's IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S WORLD, the Impressions' PEOPLE GET READY, Ben E. King's STAND BY ME, oh the inventory continues. Not only have these songs been covered too often, none of the remakes can ever outshine the originals. Besides, Seal's versions do not exactly stray too far from the first cuts.

But do these observations make Seal's SOUL, soulless?

Strangely enough, most of those whom I know have heard the album, fancy it.  Funky and groovy, it is also intense and almost brooding. On one hand, the music conjures images of classic Corvettes careening through hot stretches of desert road. On the other, smoky bars with ladies in big skirts and huge hairdos clinging to to their men and shuffling to some slow rock. You can shimmy to the music, bounce to it, snap your fingers or click your heels. Seal's SOUL possesses a range of rhythms that will make you sway and swoon.

So do I think the album has tired concept? Perhaps. But it is especially tired for a unique group of listeners (well-researched music critics, for instance) who have religiously followed the music of Al Green, Otis Redding, and all these blues greats who have defined the genre. But to the greater majority of us who no longer recognize these names but can instantly recognize great music, Seal's album will satisfy. The arrangements are rich (and faithful to the originals), the interpretations are sincere, and the voice, full of yearning soul.

Here is one of the tracks, A CHANGE IS COMING:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire's best original song

It seems we have finally passed that era when the Academy Awards would hand out Oscars for Best Original Song to such sweeping and sentimental ballads as CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT, YOU MUST LOVE ME, and MY HEART WILL GO ON. In more recent years, the statuettes have been given to less predictable but more cut through pieces of music. Consider these: Eminem's LOSE YOURSELF (8 Mile), Jorge Drexler's AL OTRO LADO DEL RIO (Motorcycle Diaries), Melissa Etheridge's I NEED TO WAKE UP (An Inconvenient Truth), and most recently A.R. Rahman's JAI HO (Slumdog Millionaire). How refreshing.

While Rahman has become wildly popular in his native India, he has managed to stay relatively under the radar in the international scene, but breaking through in the 2001 flick LAGAAN (a lavish musical epic which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars). He has since scored such diverse works as WARRIORS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH (a Mandarin language film), ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, and the stage productions of BOMBAY DREAMS (as commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Weber), and THE LORD OF THE RINGS (with Finnish folk music band Varttina).

Rahman's success can perhaps be attributed to his wide range and versatility. Although he has a degree in Western classical music, he is exceptionally skilled in Carnatic and Hindustani music, and entertains a natural affection for rock, jazz and reggae. Through all these musical genres, he has developed a curiosity for the synthesizer, which he believes imbibes the perfect combination of music and technology--an interest Rahman pursued in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

The movie's Oscar-winning song, JAI HO, is an inventive blend of Bollywood pop and European dance, making it both local and universal, with world music charm and mainstream appeal. Ironically, the tune was written for another movie but was rejected for that production. Fortunate for us, it received a second lease in life through SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, and so now we can all bob our heads as the Indians do while we listen.

Here, from the Mozart of Madras A.R. Rahman, is JAI HO:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Whatever happened to Melinda Doolittle?

As things heat up on this year's American Idol, one wonders if any of the eventual finalists will be as stellar (or lackluster) as those who made it to the final 12 in earlier seasons. For me, among the most phenomenal vocalists discovered by the reality show is Melinda Doolittle--talentwise, if any of this year's contestants come near the 3rd placer of season 6, then we would have found a real gem. 

But what has happened to the former back-up singer, who despite being safe week after week on American Idol, was suddenly eliminated right before the finals? After bowing out to runner-up Blake Lewis and Idol winner Jordin Sparks, Doolittle began performing with Michael W. Smith on his concert tours, and then recorded her first single, My Funny Valentine--a piece she sang to much acclaim on the Idol show.

This month, however, Doolittle released her first allbum, COMING BACK TO YOU, which sold a modest 10,000 copies on its first week. True, during her stay on Idol, the artist was criticized for appealing to a more mature and niche audience compared to Jordin Sparks (who's debut CD sold 119,000 on its first week), but this in no way diminishes Doolittle's talent, which reaches new heights in the album. A compilation of tracks with a rich, soulful vibe, COMING BACK TO YOU fuses her bluesy Tennessee musical roots with her penchant for Motown, retro R&B, and Gospel (after all, she once sang back-ups for Michael McDonald, the Winans and for Kirk Franklin). The result is an album reminiscent of the projects of Tina Turner and Glady's Knight--but with an all-female back-up track plus updated instrumental arrangements.

Maybe her album will penetrate more the Adult Contemporary rather than the popular R&B charts, but hey--there's no denying this woman's a vocal force to reckon with. Check out below the single Melinda Doolittle is currently promoting, IT'S YOUR LOVE.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dianne Reeves in Manila, March 2

Four-time Grammy winner for best jazz vocal performance Dianne Reeves is set to perform live for Filipino music enthusiasts at the Rockwell Tent on Monday, March 2, 2009. The news has been confirmed by organizers of the Philippine International Jazz Festival (PIJF), which stages the annual event to promote jazz in all its forms to local audiences. The PIJF is on its 4th run this year.

Filipinos came to know Reeves best through her recording of BETTER DAYS in her 1987 self-titled album. The song remained in the playlist of many local radio stations, prompting every belter-wannabe to mimic the artist's indelible style in amateur singing stints. In truth, Reeves's career started much earlier, originally recording BETTER DAYS in her WELCOME TO MY LOVE album 1 full decade earlier (in my opinion, this was a better version), and before that, touring with Brazilian keyboardist, Sergio Mendes.

Lately, she has been prolific in recording music, winning Grammys for four of her albums since 2001, and earning the distinction of being the only singer to have won best jazz vocal performance in three consecutive recordings.

For a complete listing of the acts performing in the 4th Philippine International Jazz Festival, visit:

Meanwhile, do watch out for details on the upcoming shows in Manila of such artists as John Legend, Craig David, and Natalie Cole--all in March 2009.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Herbie Hancock in Manila?

Teaser ads over cable TV have already announced the staging of the 4th Philippine International Jazz and Arts Festival next month. And while viewers have been advised to stay tuned for more details, the festival committee already revealed months ago a wishlist of the artists they are aiming to wow Filipino audiences with.

Headlining their dream team are iconic keyboardist Herbie Hancock, pre-eminent jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, platinum-selling brassman Dave Koz, renowned Brazilian singer-songwriter Ivan Lins, award-winning vocal ensemble The New York Voices, and 6-octave vocal jazz legend, Flora Purim.

Will organizers of this year's festival be successful in their pursuit? Last year's roster included such electrifying artists as Raul Midon, Kurt Elling, Lee Ritenour, and Incognito. I guess we should know about this year in just a few days.

The Philippine International Jazz and Arts Festival is slated from February 22 to March 4, with campus tours and workshops to be mounted alongside the highly-anticipated concerts.

Stay tuned for more details...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Friday the 13th: Chick Corea in Manila this February

Today is my lucky day. 

The jazz world has known for some time now that Chick Corea and his newly-formed Five Peace Band are kicking off 2009 with performances in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. But I just discovered this morning that even before heading down under, the jazz greats will be heading here.

Many know Corea through his most famous work, Spain. I myself first encountered the man when I was 9 via his take on Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, which he quotes as a prelude to his popular jazz track (later on, Al Jarreau recorded a version with lyrics).  Others know him for taking over Herbie Hancock's keyboards in Miles Davis's band when the former left, or for setting up his own group, Return to Forever, with bassist Stanley Clarke and vocal siren Flora Purim, among others.

But I remember him most for his mesmerizing album, The Mad Hatter (thanks George--for introducing me to the project), his avant garde brand of jazz, and his sublime improvisations on the Fender Rhodes...kaleidoscopic! Does anyone wonder why he has been Grammy-nominated 45 times and has won 14 statuettes?

Recently, Corea has re-teamed up with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (they were together over 40 years ago in Miles Davis's band). With Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, Five Peace Band is poised to elevate new audiences and break down the borders of musical genres and generations.

And they will be in Manila for a one-night show on February 13, Friday.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CDs I Look Forward to This January

So early in the year and so much music to look forward to. A quick look at some soon-to-be-released albums has made my mouth water. Maybe yours would too if we shared the same taste in music. Find out for yourself in this list of 5 CDs from 5 different women, all albums due in record bars (at least in the U.S.) this month.

Finally, four years after her debut album (when she was 14), Olstead releases SKYLARK with producer David Foster. The project promises to showcase once again, the young artist's mature interpretation and velvety vocals in this 13-track CD of jazz standards, modern classics, and 4 originals which she co-wrote. Oh, and has anyone caught her twist on Chaka Khan's THROUGH THE FIRE in a live concert with Foster? Too bad though that it's not in the CD.

Quite obviously, the CD includes a recording of RAINBOW CONNECTION. But more so, it contains tracks written by Paul Simon, Fiona Apple, and my favorites Ivan Lins and Corinne Bailey Rae.  Good pal and fellow jazz-enthusiast Jimmy Buencamino introduced me to this Grammy-nominated chanteuse, and I've been following her ever since. Expect a serving of sultry jazz, passionate yet mellow, quiet yet stirring.

Just as the 50th anniversary of Bossa Nova ended in 2008 (the genre came to life in 1958), Elias releases her BOSSA NOVA STORIES showcasing not only her dexterity on the keys (she was a child prodigy in the 60s) but so too her soothing vocal style. Born in Sao Paolo, Elias has earned a huge global following with her brand of music--a fusion of traditional Brazilian harmonies and rhythms, with modern jazz technique. The album combines Brazilian classics and American standards set to the true Bossa beat.

Let's go pop this time. Her music has been described as a mix of the Beatles, Aimee Mann, Alanis Morissette, and Amy Winehouse, while she credits Fiona Apple, Patty Griffin and Greg Laswell as among her major influences. Erin McCarley is a new kid on the block releasing her debut album which she calls a document of her search for authenticity in herself and in others. Intrigued? Watch out for this artist and listen to samples here:

Ok, here's one that's totally from left field. For those who experiment occasionally with world music, you might want to sample Traore's latest project. Born in Mali and raised in Europe, Traore was exposed to a spectrum of music including classical, jazz and pop, yet she has never abandoned her African roots. As such, her songs employ traditional instruments like the balafon, n'goni and kora; however, her singing is unlike the wailing style common amongst her tribe. Her voice is smooth and gentle resulting in an overall impact that reflects both tradition and innovation.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Love Song from Sara Bareilles

With the Grammy Awards coming up early next month, I felt it wise to brush up on some of the nominees whose work stirred up the industry in 2008. Late last year I took an interest in Adele Adkins, British soul-jazz-pop artist nominated for record of the year, song of the year, best new artist, and best female pop vocal performance. This time, I take a look at Sara Bareilles, who too is nominated for best female pop vocal performance, and whose LOVE SONG is contending for song of the year.  Incidentally, LOVE SONG was named by Billboard as the #1 hot adult contemporary song of 2008, beating even Alicia Keys's NO ONE and Coldplay's VIVA LA VIDA.

Upon graduating from UCLA in 2002, Bareilles began touring the circuit in local bars and clubs, slowly developing a following for her confident vocals and fearless keyboards. This eventually led to the indie recording of her first studio album, CAREFUL CONFESSIONS, and to bigger gigs, opening for the likes of Paolo Nutini, Mika, James Blunt, and college pals Maroon 5.

It was in 2006 when she began writing and recording material for her first major label album, LITTLE VOICE, and in June 2007 when iTunes featured her LOVE SONG as the free single of the week. Barely a month later, LITTLE VOICE became the most downloaded album in the music store. The artist's and the song's quick rise in the pop charts led to live performances in 2008 on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO and on the TODAY SHOW. Two months hence, LOVE SONG was a certified double platinum hit.

Bareilles confesses that because she's a girl who writes music with her piano, her work is often likened to Norah Jones's and Fiona Apple's; a pretty wide spectrum--Bareilles enjoys the two for the opposite reasons: Jones for her subtlety and Apple for her ferocity. But such is the music of Sara Bareilles--a delightful cocktail of the most sumptuous yet intoxicating influences, diverse as they may seem.  Consider this mix: Elton John, Police, Radiohead, Etta James, Sam Cooke, Bjork, Counting Crows, and Bob Marley, to name a few of her musical idols.

Yet pronounced in this concoction are the stories of Bareilles herself. Her music is laced with honest vignettes that narrate her life, relationships, and as she calls it, her "basket-case-ness."

Figure it out. Here's her most successful song to date, LOVE SONG.