All that Jazz: The wow in the now

All that Jazz: The wow in the now
Masters of storytelling (from left): Saulog, Gonzales, Harder, Vinoya, Infante and Saison —PHOTOS BY JOEY DE CASTRO

First of two parts

On a cool Sunday afternoon in late January, they gathered at the rooftop of the nondescript NCC Building in Mandaluyong City: keyboardists Elhmir Saison and Butch Saulog, guitarists Riki Gonzales and Rey Infante, drummer Rey Vinoya, and bassist Dave Harder. It was clear from the jazz supergroup lineup—first-call musicians all—that there’d be nothing close to cool with the music that was about to go down in the venue’s maiden gig for 2024, billed “Bebop, Blues, and Beyond at the Rooftop.”

It’s the best way jazz lovers could hope to conclude an improbably long January—which on the face of it makes little sense, considering that 31 days too has December, but students of time perception are quick to point out that since December’s action-packed days all too soon give way to resuming work in January, it can feel that time now crawls at a glacial pace. Having fun is apparently the biggest predictor of whether one experiences time’s passage sluggishly or swiftly.


This was the dopamine fix we all needed. The setting couldn’t have been better: fair weather for sunset watching from the eighth floor with a clear view of the city skyline, surrounded by a garden of cacti and succulents, and in fine company. The gate (P1k) came with free beer and food, and the chance to check out the gallery of potter, gardener, and building owner Joey de Castro one floor below.

De Castro is one of the three people responsible for bringing the rooftop sessions to life, the other two being Rizal Underground frontman Stephen Lu and Saulog—lifelong friends and batchmates at Xavier School. The sessions have been going on for 10 years and running, made possible by equipment that Lu has stored on the rooftop and an abiding love in the trio’s circles for all genres of good music. Saulog, a lawyer and a mainstay of the Manila blues and jazz scene, and De Castro organize the party by rallying friends and musicians every three months or so, as schedules allow.

Pushing the envelope

Saulog and Gonzales enjoy a brief quiet.

The fact that no one knows what has become of the sessions’ cellphone recordings might break a music historian’s heart, but no matter. The sessions are thriving, and the music remains in good hands, be it jazz, blues, rock, reggae, or indie. “This is already pushing the envelope,” De Castro says, adding that the sessions’ spontaneous nature ensures their freshness. No one really knows what’s happening next. Performances there are always unrehearsed, the repertoire determined on site.

Up on that roof, the hours would fly for sure. This jazz crew’s considerable breadth of ability and experience promised to deliver on the feel-good rush from creating music in the moment. “That’s probably also why I’m not too keen on recording sessions like this,” Saulog says. “I’d tend to play a lot more safely if I knew I was being recorded.”

And it was quite the musical edge they found themselves on that evening.  No frontline horns here, but Saison’s keyboard and Saulog’s Nord organ tore through vertiginous passages over a swinging beat that crackled so fast you could almost see smoke rising from Vinoya’s cymbals.  The ridged harmonies and dynamic tempos that accentuated the back-and-forth between drums and Gonzales’ and Infante’s guitars and the fireworks flying off the keys were anchored by Harder’s sturdy and sensitive bass playing.

All that jazz
Infante and Saison aren’t holding back.

This kind of playing invites the audience to stay in the moment of perfect freedom, and revel in extended solos framed in a denser and lusher harmonic language that requires soloists to be quick-witted and fully prepared, and to know their scales thoroughly, especially when the chord changes come hurtling at full speed. 

Nothing less than a new world is birthed in this experience that is firmly rooted in the bliss of the here and now and the possible, which one wishes to hear and see more of, and more often. Things, however, are not that simple. 

Bursts of inspired planning 

Pop-up gigs such as the rooftop sessions are not regular in the way that live music bars are. The former spring from bursts of inspired planning (often weeks in advance, in consideration of moving parts such as the players’ schedules, and the availability of host venue and audience) while the latter serve as homes for the music for as long as owners can afford their upkeep. 

Of all the music genres today in the country, jazz is arguably the only one that’s ever in search of a home. You’d think that jazz and classical music—two musical styles popularly deemed steeped in elitist and self-conscious artiness—share a similar fate. Turns out that classical music today enjoys the luxury of several homes: Three orchestras perform at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater in Circuit Makati (Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, Manila Symphony Orchestra, and Manila Pianos), and at the Carlos P. Romulo Hall (Manila Symphony Orchestra). 

Adds impresario Pablo Tariman: “Also happening are the Manila Pianos regular series and several outreach concerts. The Manila Philharmonic under Rodel Colmenar caters to commercial gigs. The PPO and MSO both have regular seasons in their respective venues. Nothing like that in jazz.”

These performances enjoy broad popular support and their audiences have even grown postpandemic, according to Tariman.

In a way, jazz aficionados have been helping keep the home fires burning by showing up regularly at venues for live jazz, as are the few dogged bar owners holding out the hope for a Pinoy jazz renaissance following the incalculable ravages of Covid-19.

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