The artist as Pinoy jazz icon

By Bernardo V. Lopez – Mainstream jazz is a little-known music genre in the Philippines. Here, we feature five Filipino veteran mainstream jazz artists — Richard Merk and Mel Torre (vocals), Rex Grupo (keyboard), Pete Ramido (drums), Abeng Lavapiz (bass).

The average Filipino regards “jazz” as a generic term to include all types such as fusion jazz. Many do not know that “mainstream jazz” is the classical form that has evolved from Afro-Cuban roots and New Orleans blues in the early 20th century, that it has a history of evolution all its own. Jazz “standards” are a specific set of songs or tunes that belong to this musical history.

Noted for his voice improvisations, Richard has his own place at Greenbelt called Merk’s Bar, where they have the Wednesday “Jazz Festival.” Richard sings together with Judith Banal (female vocals) and Romy Posadas (keyboard). They can draw a good crowd.

That Richard started singing in the womb of his mother without a microphone is an accepted hyperbole. His mother, Annie Brazil, now living in New Jersey, dubbed as the legendary Queen of Philippine Jazz, has her own gigs at the jazz watering holes of New York City, along Bleeker Street and in Greenwich Village. At 9 years old, Richard sang on TV at ABS-CBN’s Tita Betty Children Show. He sang for Johnny de Leon’s Putol-putol Operatta, and at the Clover and Manila Grand Opera House. His first big break was in the Singapore Jazz Festival, where he was with Rey Cristobal’s Sticky Band. His second was as co-host in Maricel (Soriano) Live Sunday program. He has had stints in Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia. Richard is a jazz legend that can equal his mother.

Rex, Pete, Abeng are a mainstream jazz trio called Empathy. They are the veterans of veterans who started their careers in the fifties. They have been everywhere in the world from cruise ships to naval bases to cozy jazz bars in Asia and America. They recently took in the youthful Mel as vocals to form a quartet that is being considered at the Mandarin’s Martini’s Bar. At present they have many gigs, together or separately with other groups. Congressman Ed Zialcita is one of their avid fans.

Mel Torre was dubbed by Ryan Cayabyab as the Filipino Billie Holiday when she sang at Filipino Idol. She sings for other groups, such as the acoustic band Bitter Sweet Symphony with Julius Lopez (percussion-guitar) and Pop Pornobi (guitar), and the Baihana (Cebuano for woman), a female jazz trio. Although she is intimate with jazz, the versatile Mel can shift to rock, pop, OPM to Broadway at the blink of an eye.

A Boholanon, Rex Grupo at the keyboard is the band leader. You need a bucket of ice to cool his keyboard, which normally catches fire when he gets carried away. He played with the Four Notes in the sixties, with Donna Summers, and the Four Aces. Rex was in the front act of Lito Molina’s Jazz Friends at the PICC.

Pete Ramido, born in Manchuria of a Russian mother and a Filipino father, is liked by foreigners for his cool effortless style even as he plays complex drum sequences. At 17 years old in the ’50s, he was already playing for big bands, such as for Don Chico and Boy Palacio. He played in a US base in Bangkok during the Vietnam War, and with Eartha Kitt at the Manila Hilton in the ’70s. He also played at Manila Penn with Danny Mercado at the sax.

Abeng Lavapiz is a fantastic veteran bass player. He has played guitar or bass for singers like Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Carmen Pateña, Pilita Corrales, Carmen Soriano, and for dozens of musical directors like Emil Mijares, Domeng Valdez, and Dominic Salustiano. He was in Lito Molina’s famous Jazz Friends band, and played for a French jazz group called Jewelmer. He has played in Singapore, Dubai, San Francisco, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Tahiti.

Try these icons if you feel you can step up the jazz ladder or if you are already up there. Like wine which is not in the Filipino culture, jazz takes time to be appreciated. But now that red wine is beginning to compete with beer, mainstream jazz is also beginning to spread. For beginners, jazz is noisy, unintelligible or bizarre because they do not understand it. Jazz is not something you appreciate quickly. It takes gradual familiarity. There is a resistance because it is out of the ordinary. Because it is abstract and complex, and deviates from known melodies, you have to “discern” the melody within the deviation, otherwise you will not appreciate it. Jazz standards normally begin with the melody, then departs according to the creative spirit of each of the band members who take turns to play solo in his or her own independent deviation. The farther you deviate, the better, as long as you go back to the melody, and as long as you play together. Band members flow with each other. The band leads itselfwith implicit musical cues without a signal or a conductor. They know by instinct when to “pass the ball.” To the beginner, try out these five great artists as your baptism of fire. To the veterans, listen to the creme of jazz Philippines.

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