Portraits in Jazz: Tots Tolentino in the cool of the moment

Portraits in Jazz: Tots Tolentino in the cool of the moment
Tots Tolentino plays with Dixie Sheiks. —PHOTO BY ERNESTO V. ENRIQUE

(First of a series)

EDITOR’S NOTE: With this piece, Jocelyn de Jesus starts a series of portraits resulting from conversations with stellar Filipino jazz practitioners—“in full bloom in their 60s and 70s,” she says, and “changing the game one gig at a time.”    

Mario “Tots” Tolentino’s household-name status in contemporary Philippine music is undisputed, having been built through at least three decades of playing the saxophone for an assortment of musical genres, and as many singers and bands, in recordings or live stages here and abroad. He is among Asia’s esteemed jazz artists—a virtuoso performer and improviser at the top of his game—for whom a “late start” apparently worked out well.

“I started late, around 15, fooling around with guitars and handmade bamboo flutes,” says Tots. “I was very into rock, pop songs on radio, and lots of Glenn Miller, Ray Conniff, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Tom Jones—the music of the times.” 

But right then he knew that music would be his life, and that he would never be anything other than a musician. By the time he entered the University of the Philippines College of Music at 17 and heard American jazz saxophonist, band leader, and composer Charlie Parker in the music library, he “felt I had to make music like that.”


The music of the 1970s in these parts, where we borrowed heavily from the western world, was a joyride through a staggering variety of sounds and formats. Rock got edgier, and pop, disco, funk, punk, R&B, and new wave were transformative and playful, often incorporating elements from classical music. The decade was also a glorious time for OPM (original Pilipino music) and Pinoy jazz.

Tots recalls “lots of local jazz dominating the scene.” He cites an interview with the legendary rock drummer Edmond “Bosyo” Fortuno in Jingle magazine in which Bosyo was quoted as saying that he was where the money was though his heart lay elsewhere:  “Rocker talaga ako pero jazz muna ngayon… Nandun ang pera.” 

“Music was different then,” Tots says. “Even radio was bursting at the seams with all sorts—not with jazz, but still great, adventurous music.” 

He came into bloom at a time when there was appreciable Filipino presence in local and regional jazz festivals, Philip Morris International brought jazz superbands nearly every year to Manila from the mid- to late ‘80s, and Filipino jazz artists were the ones to watch in Asia. 

He went on to further studies in soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, after graduating magna cum laude at UP in 1982.

New Wave


“The music of the ‘80s changed everything,” Tots notes. “We now had a broadening New Wave and MIDI (musical instrument digital interface, a computer system that allowed the recording of the output of a musical instrument like an electric guitar or synthesizer, so that the recording is in a digital form).” Bands and orchestras downsized, and except for a few dates with Filipino jazz pianist “The Wildman” Bobby Enriquez and some with small local groups, Tots says, he “had little to do with jazz then.” 

Mostly doing first-call session work between 1984 and 1990, Tots emerged as a top-tier session musician in the local concert scene that headlined the country’s top pop performers. 

This is always the elephant in the room: Talk of jazz saxophone in the ‘90s could not but cite the highly polarizing saxophonist Kenny G who rose to dubious fame in the decade, at least among jazz enthusiasts and fans.

“You know how that went,” Tots says, laughing at recalling how all sax players had albums, “although pop jazz lang.” 

In 1990 Tots himself released a self-titled album (Tots Tolentino), followed in short order by Inah (1991) and Color Real (1993). He was also frontman for Buhay, a jazz band comprising Filipino musicians Wowee Posadas (keyboards), Mar Dizon (drums), and Meong Pacana (bass), with whom he toured in jazz festivals in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. 

In the mid-‘90s the eminent Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino invited Tots to complete  the Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet, a jazz group featuring Asia’s foremost jazz musicians—pianist/organist Jeremy Monteiro (Singapore), guitarist Eugene Pao (Hong Kong), and drummer Hong Chanutr Techatana-nan (Thailand).

Tots hasn’t looked back since the 2000s when he threw himself fully into hometown jazz ensembles big and small: He was one of the founders and principal soloists of the AMP (Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino) Band, and a member of the Bobby Enriquez All-Star Band and Johnny Alegre’s Affinity, among others. 

He has also crossed over with his sax into other creative settings. In 2014 he played a concert of jazz themes alongside a recital of the texts of Latin American writer Julio Cortázar in the program “Queremos Tanto a Julio” organized by the Instituto Cervantes and the Embassy of Spain. The Argentine writer’s chief influences were surrealism and the improvisational aesthetic of jazz, the latter showing through in his short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”), which he based on the life of Parker, Tots’ own life-altering inspiration.

In 2017 Tots shared the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Theater stage with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Filipino conductor Gerard Salonga in a program that featured George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” John Williams’ “Catch Me If You Can—Escapades,” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor,” “From the New World.”

Leading light

Tots relaxed, post-gig, at Tago —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

At 64, Tots shines as a leading light and mentor, a force of nature on stage on his saxophone. When he blows, he makes the instrument weep, sigh, dream, and sing, whether he’s playing originals or reworkings of jazz standards with the quartet Sifu (composed of himself, keyboardist Elhmir Saison, bassist Dave Harder, and drummer Rey Vinoya) or jamming with other musicians. It’s hard to miss the longing-filled overtones even in his note-for-note performance on the clarinet for Ronald Tomas’ Dixie Sheiks (chiefly Dixieland music). 

Tots’ playing approximates Haruki Murakami’s musically erudite chauffeur’s description of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ improvised lines in the story “Thailand”: “There—you can hear it, I’m sure: the hot breath, the shiver of the heart.”  

“I think [more] people are starting to pay more attention or maybe just developing a taste [for jazz],” Tots says, ascribing the shift to the musical varieties from across the globe made accessible by the internet. “I feel jazz in Southeast Asia will evolve to sound like a mix of many different elements precisely because of the global connection. The Philippines already has its own sound, about which I am optimistic,” he says, adding that an extra push is all that’s needed: “Kailangan lang itulak ng outside support.”

Jazz will outlive us all, Tots declares. We just have to create and nurture a community and get more people into it. “Then maybe we can make an impact,” he says. “I’m an improviser. I must create, or I lose interest. That’s why I play jazz. At the same time, jazz has to evolve and reflect the times lest it lose meaning and relevance.”

“Right now, I just take what’s there,” he adds. “Improvisation and creativity fill up my practice time, which I hope to do more religiously.”

This way of life summons poet William Stafford’s existential prayer in “Yes”: “…That’s why we wake/ and look out—no guarantees/ in this life./ But some bonuses, like morning,/ like right now, like noon,/ like evening.”

Like Tots.

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