Local Artist Spotlight
“We have more technology but have less time as musicians
because people are distracted.” – Alvin Cornista
I chose to spotlight reedman Alvin Cornista for this issue as I have seen him in performance numerous times in Metro Manila and viewed almost all of his YouTube videos as well. His reading of standard jazz covers is almost always startling because of his unconventional reworking of familiar melodic lines we aficionados know by heart such as those of “All Blues”, “Freddie the Freeloader”, “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Saint Thomas”. In addition to being an original interpreter of the jazz standards, Cornista is also a prolific composer as well. And I will never forget his searing, ever innovative performance a couple years back when he appeared as a soloist in a pick-up band with American percussionist royal hartigan doing Coltrane’s “Impressions”.
Alvin Cornista, an up-and-coming tenor saxophonist and leader of the
group,JAZZMATIK, was born here in the Philippines, and lived here until he was 5 years old, but later studied jazz in Vancouver at Capilano University where he won Juno’s High Note Award as Canada’s top music graduate, and later entered into University of North Texas, a school noted for its award-winning student bands. “Like jazz goes,” Cornista says, “you can’t learn everything in school. Most of my influences he attributed to by going to clubs, and studying with the musicians you like”, which he did over a 15 year period.
Cornista’s major influences musicial influences? “Let’s say 5. Charlie Parker was my first (the Charlie Parker Omnibook); after switching to tenor sax, then it was Coltrane. And I followed those who came out of Coltrane like Michael Brecker and Jerry Bergonzi both of whom are a little bit hard-edge, but with a lot of emotion. From these I started to study the melodic saxophone, e.g., Sonny Stitt, who lacked the power of ‘Trane, and from there, Sonny Rollins, usually spending a year or two with each of these guys. Rollins has a lot of vocabulary, a cool cat; has a lot of humor and swagger when he gets on stage. You can never stop studying Rollins. He’s one of the best. And after that, Stan Getz. This musician has a certain rhythm, his conception of rhythm worked well with the Brazilian samba musical adherents. There was another player, for a short period, Stanley Turrentine, with a sweet bluesy tone that he gets. When he plays one note, you know who he is. Sure, I listen to the current cats, but I always go back to those above when I want to relax. I forgot to mention, Dexter Gordon, who has nice time, a different tone, attitude and rhythmic approach. I never get bored with these guys.”
What about Wayne Shorter? “Wayne, I forgot! I like Shorter because of his thematic developments; it’s something you’d hear, like tones, shapes, extensions, colors underneath a very strong haunting melody. When it comes to soloing, he really has an angle, but really tries to convey an emotion in a song, his passion. He comes across a little bit harsh, but then it really fits the mood of what he’s trying to do. It’s raw, unpolished. I spent a lot of time
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learning classical, but the question is: ‘Do you want to play everything perfect and clean?’ Because perfect and clean is only one emotion.”
How would you evaluate local musician’s preparation in terms of exposure to American jazz song book? “You know what? There are so many ways to learn jazz. Berklee is only one way to learn jazz. University of Santo Tomas is modeled after Berklee as many other schools are. I don’t mind musicians who do not go through that kind of training; in fact, sometimes there’s a lot more identity in their playing. The key to being a good jazz musician is to listen to those you like, to copy what they do, and try to use your time wisely to gain mastery. I think the barriers…there were never really any barriers to begin with in the world. The good ones studied the masters inside out with the hope that you eventually you come up with your own style. Because of the local influences, one’s individuality of musical expression is colored by their backgrounds, thereby giving them a unique identity. The one common denominator of all these local traditions, like the Philippine street bands, is the presence of a fundamental beat. It’s important to be playing for their audiences. Of course, we try to play our own art form, but at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the audience. That is why it’ll never be the same from country to country.”
How important are the blues to the development of a jazz musician? “Yes, that’s a really an important question. I heard 30 European musicians recently here in Manila who sounded like the saxophonist Jerry Mulligan or the classic album, Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool; if you’ve noticed, this album has the least amount of in-your-face blues music, and if you compare it to Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers, it was almost like a backlash to the “cool” musicians. We’re talking about musicians like Lee Morgan and Horace Silver. They were trying to say, ‘You ain’t playing shit, unless you’re playing the Blues.’ Maybe imparting the blues is not that important to all jazz musicians because they’re doing an avant-garde thing or a contemporary classical thing. Maybe it’s not that important in general. How important is it to me? Very important. The blues: It’s also an attitude. If you listened to the German guys, they played perfectly in tune. Playing the blues on top of the melody is important to me. Yes, I try to play this way, the way Black musicians play the blues where the scale is not perfect, where some of the notes could be a little bit off, maybe a little sharp or flat. When you try to play a flat third, it’s not a perfect flat 3rd, it’s almost the second. But people who love the blues like me, ahhhh, that’s right, but when you hear the German guys hit the flat third, it’s “ping”, perfectly in-tune because they’re coming out of a classical training. That’s great, but I don’t feel it in my gut.”
Where does technology fall within your purview? I’m thinking of technology’s sonic possibilities for reed players like Joshua Redman. “Right now, I’m very interested in sounds. I’m doing a jazz album right now, but I am going to explore different analogue techniques. When I hear an album where the sound is the same from beginning to end. It’s great. But since my other passion is engineering, I’ll put the mic in the bell and in other songs, at other side of the
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room. These are the type of things I want to do. Why not do them since I can do them, especially when I’m engineering the session. Why not make the album sound like Coltrane’s Blue Train, or Brubeck’s Time Out, as these have very different sounds? So, why not sound like Birth of the Cool? Master mixes are fine, but I want to explore. People have to realize that we can do these kinds of things nowadays.”
What is the title and theme of your current album? “Alvin Cornista VINTAGE JAZZ. Thematically, it’s coming out of the compositional style of Horace Silver and Jazz Messengers where there’s a lot of blues influences in there. And there’s also a lot of Latin influences mixed in with jazz. But when I say Latin, probably it’s a mix of real academic Latin and quasi-Latin which was quite popular during the ‘60s and ‘70s, meaning to say that real Latin musicians would say, “this is not Latin”. But the jazz musicians still had an idea of what it was. So, the sound will be coming out of the 1960s. But this would be end of analogue exploration for me. I am also interested in things that go beyond the analogue techniques. For example, I am using cut & paste techniques, extreme effects and digitally manipulating sounds to change them.”
How would you describe the Manila jazz scene? “Jazz is well-represented now compared with 10-15 yrs ago in terms of a diversity of music. Globally connected musicians need not listen to only their teachers as in the past. Metro Manila is a musically diverse city. I always compare jazz in any city to theglobal scene.”
About the question of audiences today and a decade ago? “We live in a fast paced world. Most people want to hear everything. Songs have become short. We have more technology but have less time as musicians because people are distracted. I’ve gravitated toward a shorter presentation. I am not into long development like 15-20 min as maybe before. You really, really need to be in the proper headspace to do this, but as a performing musician you probably don’t have the opportunity too much now unless it’s 3 a.m. and you’re in a club like Balete @ Kamias (Quezon City), and everybody has had an ample amount to drink and they’re really in-tune with the music!” (Cornista laughs)
Who is responsible for audience development? Is this something musicians should be involved with? “Most jazz musicians…they’re really not interested in this kind of activity. It takes a lot of time. We actually need other people to help us. However, we have a couple organizations here in the Philippines trying to expose the public to what’s going on once or twice a year. We need to get the younger contingent during the festival off-seasons that are interested in supporting further development of music festivals, but jazz seems to be well represented here. So, it just needs to happen more.”
What is your bliss with respect to music? “What I really enjoy is the recording process, with no time pressure and no technical obstacles in the way. It’s when a group of musicians are well-looked after in every way. It’s when you get in the studio and you get a crazy idea, you don’t want an engineer saying you can’t
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do that. It’s when you get a chance to hang out, relax, have a glass of scotch or a few beers and when we’re in the right mood, to get in the studio, close our eyes and let the music happen around us, that’s bliss right there. It’s when you finally get a chance to play in a studio, and you have a perfect take, and everybody goes, ‘I have never played anything like that before in my life.’ That’s bliss.”
NOTE: In regard to describing the jazz scene in Manila, it must be said from this writer’s perspective that conditions are actually pretty bleak for most jazz musicians in light of the fact that numerous clubs that presented jazz at least once or more times a week have shuttered. I’m thinking of The Tap Room (6 nights per week) of the Manila Hotel; the Mandarin Oriental Hotel announced today that it is closing where jazz was presented a few times per week in one of its lounges; Merk’s Bar Bistro; 19 East (Parañaque); Club 1002; Freedom Bar (Mondays) and Boy Katingdig’s Jazz Cafe in Mandaluyong. What’s left could be considered the underground scene consisting of Murphy’s Irish Bar, Tago Jazz Cafe and Kamias@Balete.
Group: JAZZMATIK with Dave Harder(b), Mel Santos(k) and Rey Vinoya(d)
Youtube.com: 16 postings with Alvin Cornista as leader plus others as a
In a Philippine Daily Inquirer story dated March 18th, 2014, contributor, Dennis V. Gargantiel, reported on the phenomenal 20-year-old Filipino blues musician, Paul Marney Leobrera, whose “white-hot” guitar and vocal performance at the September, 2013 Cultural Center of the Philippines International Jazz Festival I reported about. The Inquirer story was about how Leobrera took the 2014 Cotai Jazz and Blues Festival in Macau by storm and blew away such notable finalists as Berklee-trained pianist Manami Morita and African-American bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spaulding through his innovative, if not impassioned interpretation of well-known blues standards. Discovered by American Philippine-based expatriate blues guru and musician, Tom Colvin, Leobrera formed the Bleu Rascals in 2011 and by the following year represented the Philippines at the prestigious 2012 International Blues Challenge Youth Showcase in Memphis, Tennessee. Leobrera’s meteoric rise in the international blues scene has continued with a string of appearances in such venues as Singapore’s Timbre Rock and Roots Music Festival, and later in 2012, at Indonesia’s Jakarta International Blues Festival. Then last year, Japanese blues guitarist, Shun Kikuta, invited Leobrera to perform with Kikuta as a duo at The Japan Blues Festival. Kikuta was quoted as saying that “the Rascals is the best blues band of their generation.” Leobrera’s “mesmerizing, gut-wrenching performance” had many Cotai finalists saying, “No contest.” Colvin summed it up this way: “It is simply very clear to almost everyone who hears and sees the band that Paul is something very, very special – just way above and apart from anyone else. He’s a true genius at music.”
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Pinoy Music Summit
March saw many events happening around the subject of music in the Philippines. One such event was the Pinoy Music Summit whose objective is to revitalize the ailing music industry. Attended by the stake holders of the Philippine music industry representing the Intellectual Property Office, FILSCAP (Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and representatives of numerous other organizations and societies, the conference was coming to grips with the devastating impact of Internet technology on the distribution (much of it illegal) on sales of traditional optical media such as compact discs in brick and mortar shops across the country. American dominance of the Philippine musical landscape also continues unabated in spite of Executive Order 255 (issued in 1987 by the then President Corazon Aquino) which mandated that radio stations broadcast a minimum of 4 OPM (Original Pilipino Music) music works every hour, with the aim to keep Filipino music in front of radio audiences to foster sales and continued development of the music industry. This executive order has suffered from a serious lack of enforcement.
Now, a new OPM initiative in the form legislation, House Bill 4218 (OPM Development Act of 2014), to not only enforce the terms of the original EO 255, but to offer tax credits to stations that comply with the new law when it is passed by the legislature. This new OPM law will also require visiting foreign artists to pay equity fees “equivalent to the amount that a Filipino artist would be charged, were he/she to perform in the country that said foreign performers are from”. FILSCAP president, Noel Cabangon and summit director, lamented that the “EO is not fully enforced or followed. The same could be said of the performers’ equity program which is bound by a memorandum of agreement signed in 1989. Although these measures are in place, they need to be institutionalized” by becoming the law of the land.
But how will the new OPM legislation impact jazz musicians? The problem is that commercial radio stations in the Philippines don’t choose to broadcast any serious jazz programming except for one American-produced 30-min program, Night Lights, broadcast Thursdays at 6 pm on the one-and-only classical music station, DZFE-FM 98.7. It is extremely doubtful any Pinoy jazz will ever be heard on Night Lights.
Collis H. Davis, Jr.