Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


I was out of town for the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet's Hong Kong gigs earlier this year, and was sorry to miss them at the time.

I'm twice as sorry now. Singapore-based Jazznote Records has just released an album titled Live at the Living Room Jazz Festival in Bangkok, and it features some spectacular playing from all four musicians. The album was recorded in June at the Living Room in the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, now Bangkok's premier jazz venue.

The band comprise Singapore-born keyboard player Jeremy Monteiro, the instigator of the project; local guitarist Eugene Pao; Tots Tolentino from the Philippines on tenor saxophone; and Chanutr Techatana-nan (aka Hong, which is a lot easier to spell and pronounce) from Thailand on drums.

'I think the only way to improve as a musician is to work with musicians who inspire you and push you to new heights and musical places you never knew you could go,' says Monteiro, who is rightly proud of the performances on the album. 'Playing with Eugene, Tots, and Hong always does that for me. As I am playing I am often thinking 'How the hell does he do that?''

There are a fair number of moments on this CD when the players must have surprised each other like that.

Monteiro, Pao and Tolentino first worked together in the 1990s in an earlier 'super group' led by New York-based Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, and have since collaborated on other projects.

Hong, the band's youngest member, is the drummer in Monteiro's organ trio Organamix.

The instrumental line-up here is also that of a classic organ trio, augmented with saxophone, with the organist supplying the bass parts. This leads one to expect soul jazz in the Jimmy Smith, Richard 'Groove' Holmes, Jimmy McGriff or Brother Jack McDuff vein.

There are certainly elements of that in the sound, but the improvisation is altogether further reaching, and the extended solos recall vintage 1970s jazz rock fusion, and free jazz.

For the most part Monteiro keeps the bass parts sparse, which leaves Hong plenty of freedom to do unexpected things with the beat.

Pao plays plenty of what Monteiro calls 'those amazingly soaring solos that are inspirational', while Tolentino and the guitarist play off each other with the easy familiarity that comes from years of sharing bandstands. Monteiro himself has found another voice with the Nord organ.

There are five tracks on the album, which opens strongly with guitarist Peter Bernstein's Carrot Cake, which he originally recorded in 1998 with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart.

The late Michael Brecker's African Skies, a composition which appeared on his 1996 Tales From the Hudson album, follows. One of Pao's strongest influences, Pat Metheny, played on the original. Metheny, an admirer of Pao's playing, would probably approve of the direction he takes the tune here. Tolentino plays a darkly appropriate solo.

The third track is a ballad - Burt Bacharach and Hal David's This Guy's in Love With You - which was a 1968 US No1 hit for Herb Alpert. It brings out the melodic side of Monteiro, Pao and Tolentino, and again Hong does interesting things with the time. The quartet then head off into a funky but edgy reading of a blues-tinged Larry Goldings organ trio tune, Wrappin' It Up, before concluding with the album's sole self-composed number - Tolentino's punningly titled Tiramisu, dedicated to Hino.

The Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet did a total of 18 shows in six cities on their 2011 tour, and this performance was recorded half way through it. Clips from other gigs have been uploaded to You Tube, and are also worth checking out.

Take Three

Three other CDs worth checking out from Jazznote Records.

Montreux Special Reissue (2011): a landmark recording. Monteiro, guest guitarist O'Donel Levy and the rhythm section of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Eldee Young and Isaac Redd Holt, took the hard swinging music they had been playing together in Singapore to the 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival and were one of the hits of the event. This reissue includes a DVD of the performance.

Groovin' At Groove Junction (2009): Monteiro, Hong and guitarist Andrew Lim, collectively called Organamix, play a classic organ trio set, recorded live, originally for the performers' archives, but correctly deemed too good to not release.

Only Trust Your Heart (2005): a fine saxophone piano duet set featuring Monteiro on piano and Chicago saxophonist Greg Fishman on an intimate, ballad-dominated set, documenting the impressive rapport they built up while playing gigs in Singapore and Bangkok.