by Collis Davis
Johnny Alegre AFFINITY
Personnel: Johnny Alegre (guitar, composer), Colby de la Calzada (bass), Koko Bermejo (drums), Tots Tolentino (saxophones), Elhmir Saison (piano) and Joey Quirino (piano)
My approach to reviewing guitarist-composer Johnny Alegre’s new album of remastered tracks, “Stories”, is to do a side-by-side comparison of this MCA Music release with their original renditions from Candid Records, Jazzhound (2005) and Eastern Skies (2007).
In 2008, I wrote about “Eastern Skies” in a review published online in the Jazz Society of the Philippines (Jazzphil) website. The music from that album, from which half of the material in “Stories” is taken, featured the Global Studio Orchestra conducted by Gerard Salonga, as arranged by Ria Villena-Osorio. But the remarks I wrote back then will stand augmented with fresh insights gained upon listening to familiar material now updated. Taken as a whole, sonically, I should liken my experience of "Stories" to what you would experience after a doctor removes the wax from your ears, your hearing restored to a world of sound only faintly heard previously. Furthermore, as I haven’t critically listened until now to some selections from “Jazzhound”, I am covering new ground in considering “Stories” as a total work.
I asked Johnny Alegre how he came to name the album, “Stories”. He explained, “Each of my compositions in the album is a representation of either a personal experience or a concept I wished to describe. For example, “Vertigo” is a ‘what if’ (i.e. what if I were to compose a soundtrack for a film by Alfred Hitchcock).”
“Stories” features an improved mix of “East Indies” (Jazzhound) with enhancements of the piano and bass sonorities. Tot Tolentino’s alto saxophone appears untouched but, overall, the remastered sound is much cleaner. The opening melodic statement, a simple riff, has a mesmerizing quality that gives this composition a hypnotic quality within which the listener can get lost in the repetitive motif of this piece. It is notable that this composition opens both the “Jazzhound” and “Stories” CDs, revealing Alegre’s obvious fondness for this track.
Characterized by alternating loud and soft passages, “Light and Joy” (Eastern Skies) opens with a tantalizing sustained note juxtaposed by Joey Quirino’s repeating piano motif and Colby dela Calzada’s bass riff. Rhythmically upbeat, this composition exudes the joy suggested by its title. Midway through, Tots Tolentino solos against a steadfast piano accompaniment by Elhmir Saison and vigorous drumming by Koko Bermejo. The remainder is handled by a short, distinctly articulated, staccato-like solo by Johnny as the ensemble restates the theme. In the "Stories version," the mix makes vivid all of its orchestral textures and gives particular emphasis on Bermejo’s kick-ass drumming.
Excellent guitar soloing on “Guardian Angel” (Jazzhound) characterizes this low-key piece whose melodic line Johnny said had been a recurring “recollection that would surface in fleeting moments”, then be forgotten; that is, until he decided to commit it to paper the next time he heard it. With superior equalization this time around, we hear the reverb Johnny had originally applied to his solo and the band. One feature of Elhmir Saison’s piano solo in this track is the purposeful, but “accidental” sound of hitting of two keys positioned side-by-side on the keyboard, something Thelonious Monk aficionados would recognize. Nice touch!
In “Jazzhound”, the title piece of the 2005 album of the same name, Colby de la Calzada’s bass anchors this composition with an infectious, funky groove. First to solo is saxophonist Tots Tolentino who, at the beginning of his surprisingly emotional solo, echoes Elhmir’s punctuations on the keyboard, showing real communication between the players, and then exploring his horn’s limits in the upper registers. Koko Bermejo complements the saxophone solo with vigorous cymbal work. Johnny Alegre, starting out in real minimalist fashion (playing the fewest notes to reflect the melodic riff of “Jazzhound”) moves into a John Scofield-influenced tone and phraseology for the remainder of the solo. Elhmir Saison, sounding like Herbie Hancock in his solo, is backed up again by Bermejo’s excellent cymbal work. The maturity of all these players can be appreciated in how they open their solos in an austere way, teasing the listener to await more rhetorical gems as the song unfolds. “Jazzhound” closes with a reiteration of the opening melody, and ends with Colby dela Calzada’s bass solo, book-ending the piece with the figure that marked the opening.
Although the brassy “Natural Jazz” (Eastern Skies) is not one of my favorites, the equalization of the track’s horn section has freshened the Eastern Skies version significantly. Ria Villena-Osorio’s horn arrangement juxtaposes the reeds against the brasses in a call and response pattern. Alegre’s guitar solo followed by Tots Tolentino’s saxophone solo is supported by vigorous brass and reed chorusing.
“Mother’s Day” (Eastern Skies), which showcases Johnny with the orchestra, opens with a clarion quality as it introduces an oboe, then segues to flutes and reeds followed by strings in a lush variation of the melody. What’s nice is the careful matching of orchestral colors between these various classes of instruments, but remain distinguishable because of their distinct timbres. Reminiscent of Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny, Alegre turns in a solid solo juxtaposed by an insistent metronome-like tempo provided by percussionist Koko Bermejo. Tolentiono’s solo with the woodwinds and strings makes for a climatic reiteration of the melody. This number is one of the better executions employing the orchestra under the baton of Gerard Salonga.
One of Alegre’s most elegant compositions, “The Stranger” (Eastern Skies) is a medium-tempo work that opens with a distant clarinet, then supplanted by a haunting soprano saxophone. Interludes of flute and strings demarcate sections of this episodic work. Koko’s cymbal work introduces Joey Quirino’s excellent solo in which he purposely retards the tempo at points thus creating an interesting tension. Johnny’s ruminative solo is followed by another interlude consisting of a bassoon and harp and strings alternate with a trilling flute section. Tots follows with a spare, contemplative solo, sounding reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. The strings end with the riff that began the composition, but ends on a suspended note that is left unresolved. Nice.
In my previous Internet review of the 47-minute “Eastern Skies” album, I had complained that the solos in it were too short, averaging between a minute to 1:20. So I am gratified that in “Stories”, Johnny Alegre created a 67-minute Compact Disc of his compositions, providing room for the key soloists to “stretch out”. This time, such as in “Perfect Imperfect” (Jazzhound), we experience virtuosic solos ranging from Elhmir Saison’s 1:51, Johnny’s 2:27 and Tots Tolentino on the long end with a 2:34-min solo. This is important because these performances are probably among the best on the entire album.
A study in contrasts, “Vertigo” (Jazzhound) is Johnny’s tribute to both Alfred Hitchcock and Wayne Shorter (who reportedly loves Hitchcock films). “Vertigo “is heavy, dark and onerous on the one hand, but optimistic on the other. Dela Calzada’s ever-dominant bass defines and sustains the ambivalence of this piece. Tolentino creates his freest solo on this album in an impassioned statement by a unified piano and bass line. Saison’s frenetic free-form solo sustains the angular architecture of the bassist’s riff. And Johnny plays, perhaps, his most definitive solo on the album as the group collectively ventures into extra-musical effects from Saison’s stroking piano strings to employing shakers and rattles by Bermejo.
“Beacon Call” (Eastern Skies), the shortest composition on the album, seems to be echoed in the cover artwork featuring a lighthouse overlooking an expansive seascape. Pianist Joey Quirino performs a lyrical rendering of the openness suggested by the composition.
If you want hear what you’ve been missing in the original productions, this new release from MCA Music is a must-have for fans of Johnny Alegre AFFINITY as it has culled the best compositions from previous albums and brought new life to them through excellent audio mixes.
About the author
Collis Davis is an American filmmaker who also photographs and writes extensively about the jazz scene. Having retired to the Philippines in 2001, he co-produced and directed “Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines”, 58-minute video documentary and DVD that provides the first-ever documentation of the development of jazz in the Philippines. He is currently editing a new documentary entitled “Headhunting William Jones”.