Portraits in Jazz: Faye and Bergan in Project Yazz

Portraits in Jazz: Faye and Bergan in Project Yazz
Vocalist Faye Yupano (left) and bassist Bergan Nuñez: The pairing felt right from the get-go. —PHOTOS FROM FAYE YUPANO'S FB PAGE

(Fourth in a series)

At the height of the lockdown in 2021, while some were getting cozy with isolation and others were champing at the bit, popspoken.com, an independent online media outlet for art, music, and lifestyle in Southeast Asia, flagged Project Yazz as among the five “underground Filipino musicians” to check out asap.

Online was where one found Project Yazz then, along with other businesses and livelihoods in a quick marvel of reinvention, as the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered bars and performance venues, leaving many musicians and artists out of work. The brief piece was accompanied by a link to a performance by Project Yazz headliners, vocalist Faye Yupano and bassist Bergan Nuñez, making short and sassy work of the BeeGees classic “Staying Alive”—coincidentally a suitable anthem for the volatile season. 

But lockdown or no, it had been a while since the phrase “underground/indie music” stirred insistent longings for late-night meet-ups in half-lit places. And even as evocations of the signifier “underground” have morphed ever so subtly over the last 40-odd years—the kids have grown, and there’s nothing subtle about aging’s exigencies like the early bedtime and a mortal fear of the Hangover—the thrill of 1 a.m. jams has largely given way to the existential question of why, post-Covid confinement, we haven’t bumped them down to 3 p.m. sessions on weekdays like they do in other parts of the world.

Outré fun

Happily, like other indie bands at the time, Project Yazz built its audience in online streaming platforms where their performances were available for viewing 24/7.  Formed in 2017 around the core duo of Faye and Bergan, the band’s rotating cast included drummer Karlo Soriano and keyboardist Juni Sitaca in the first couple of years, and, more recently, guitarist Kurt Acosta, pianist Elijah Domingo, and drummer Chuck Menor. Musicians Jacques Dufourt, Kenneth Castillo, and Lui Tan also drift into the lineup when they’re available. 

“Bergan had a lot of ideas and I went along because they were interesting and something I’d never done before,” says the classically trained Faye, a voice coach who graduated with a degree in music from the University of Santo Tomas. “I had also been meaning to do a vocals-and-bass duo anyway, so we named the band and booked gigs with our friends. Our online musical presence grew out of the demand from those who knew us and missed our music, so we did our best to exist online despite our hermit tendencies and lack of technical know-how.” 

“We set out to connect Original Pilipino Music (OPM) with our own interpretations,” Bergan says. They had streamed an episode of “Listen Moderately,” an online show that presented their original compositions and covers, but eventually fell short of maintaining a monthly video upload. He later tried his hand in the online food business—Yazz Wings—that catered mostly to work-from-home friends and clients, which also folded a few months in. 

But connect with OPM they did, with rather impressive results. The duo’s treatment of “sentimental songstress” Imelda Papin’s signature number, “Isang Linggong Pag-ibig,” transforms the torch song into a virtuosic ballad leached of the bathos of the original. Project Yazz’s cover of the OPM favorite “Sana Dalawa ang Puso Ko” is easily the trippiest and most memorable musical form it could take in this lifetime.  

That Project Yazz could tackle a karaoke staple like Steve Perry’s “Foolish Heart” and make it sound like an ECM-label cut speaks both to Faye and Bergan’s quirky worldview and musical discipline.  

On love, onstage

Project Yazz
The classically trained Faye has been singing practically all her life.

Faye says she’s pleased that she and Bergan have grown “beyond the duo,” with a lot of their friends sharing their talents “to create different versions of our music each time.” The “hermit tendencies” Faye mentions are likely partly a function of their being (somewhat introverted) millennials and the wages of pandemic quarantine. 

“Playing on stage makes [people like us who don’t enjoy the spotlight] tense,” says Faye, who thrives best in a bass and drum trio “because keeping in tempo is one of my weaknesses, and having two in the rhythm section to support me always feels right and easy.”

Bergan looks back to when he and Faye met in Tago—arguably the hotbed of musical improv—where, as a jobless social anthropology major fresh out of college in Baguio, he had invited himself to blues and jazz jams in 2012. “I was shooed away a few times because I really didn’t know how to jam in a jazz setup,” he says. That didn’t keep him from learning as much as he could while hanging out nightly with other musicians, offering his skills where needed, until he eventually earned his stripes. In 2015 he ultimately connected with Faye there because, really, it’s just six degrees of separation in Manila’s music community.

The pairing felt right from the get-go. Two years later they teamed up on “Isang Linggong Pag-ibig,” and Faye recalls asking Bergan, who had sent her a message with the suggestion, if he was joking. Thank goodness he wasn’t, consequently bringing the gift of Project Yazz to music audiences.

Embracing challenges

To some, having your musical partner as your significant other might seem ideal. At the very least you won’t have to choose between your music career and your love life—as long as they both work reasonably well. It can be hard, says Faye, especially when it comes to keeping the two aspects discrete: “It can become too easy to make assumptions, which can ramp up tensions both on stage and off. It’s taken a lot of practice, but we’re getting there.” 

For Bergan, trust is key to both love and work because it drives creativity. And in their case, familiarity seems to have bred a sense of comfort: “Having a companion who can see through your weaknesses while believing in your strengths can push you to go further and last longer.” 

For Faye, these days are all about moving beyond the safe musical space. “We perform in Tago once every two months, and in between there are different venues and events,” she says. “As Project Yazz we’re now focused on creating original material for our supporters.” 

She also seeks out “uncomfortable settings, joining projects and bands that are not too close [to] and not too far [from]” what she usually does to overcome what she perceives as her limitations. “I find [singing with a] big band most challenging because there’s not much room for soft voices or movement, like I usually do when it’s just us two. I’ve always struggled shifting my technique from a highly dynamic and nuanced one to a clearer and more forward sound.”

That might come across as a tad too self-effacing from someone who, in 2021, was hailed as the “Mighty Songstress” from Marikina City when she defended her weekly berth in the third iteration of the 1953 Philippine amateur singing competition, “Tawag ng Tanghalan.” In 2016, her love for jazz took her to Malaysia, where she shone at the World Youth Jazz Fest in Kuala Lumpur. Today in her 30s, Faye has been singing practically all her life.

But there is constantly something new around the corner, and the journey of discovery always starts with saying “Yazz!”

Read more: Cooky Chua and Joaquin Ignacio on making music and the changing times

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