Johnny Alegre’s Jazz Guitar Workshop @ Tiendesitas Super Jazz Weekend – Part 1: “The Experience”

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(Author’s note: Earlier this week, I asked permission from Mr. Johnny Alegre to post this piece. Last night, I was granted permission to do so and even got help completing the piece in its final form from the legendary jazz guitarist himself. I feel very honored.)

Around 3 p.m. last Sunday (May 25, 2014), I stopped by Tiendesitas to attend a very much anticipated jazz guitar workshop. This jazz guitar workshop was facilitated by none other than one of the top jazz guitar heroes of the Philippines, Mr. Johnny Alegre. I’ve heard of Sir Johnny around the late 90s, but I became acquainted with his work through his CD “Eastern Skies”. The blend of jazz guitar and the sounds of the Global Studio Orchestra (conducted by Gerard Salonga) was captivating to say the least, and I wondered how Sir Johnny was able to do his thing. This afternoon’s event was a chance I took to somehow find out how he thinks musically as well as gain some useful information to improve my jazz composition and piano/guitar skills.

The workshop kicked off with an interview conducted by Zach Lucero (former NU107 DJ and drummer of Imago and Humanfolk), which served as kind of an introduction to Sir Johnny. Afterwards, Sir Johnny tried to figure out what his audience was like that afternoon, a mixed group of people consisting of beginner-level guitarists to people who’ve had many years of experience, such as myself. The key tips in his workshop were:

  1. Be in tune.
  2. Play in time. Have good timing.
  3. Strive for the right tone.
  4. Have good visualization (e.g. practice playing all your modes across the fretboard, draw fretboard charts)
  5. Listen to great works of music.

The workshop had discussions ranging from some of the most basic topics such as getting in tune and scale shapes to more advanced discussions of jazz theory such as modes and the impact of Latin American music.

In terms of jazz guitar playing and composition, one of the points that greatly captured my interest was Sir Johnny’s discussion and demonstration about modal interchange and secondary dominants. Why is it such a big deal? It is because it explained a lot of things such as playing minor pentatonic or the Dorian mode over a major blues chord progression, “out there” soloing, the use of color/passing/approach tones, and other stuff that makes jazz sound like what it is. Modal interchange and secondary dominants make perfect sense as to how many jazz pieces (bebop and modal jazz in particular) start at a particular key signature, drift in and out of different key signatures, and then end right back at the original key signature without sounding jarring like a 20th-century serial composition (Ascension-era John Coltrane is a different case for another discussion). Sir Johnny’s words regarding the matter had confirmed what I have been hearing and trying to do before: Modal interchange has big implications not only in the way we approach soloing but also in reharmonization and composition.

The seminar sort of felt like most of my jazz theory discussions with pianist Steve Nixon, with the exception that this time it’s about jazz guitar. I have been learning jazz through a pianist’s perspective for most of my life as a musician, but this afternoon was the first time that I was able to learn jazz directly from a guitarist’s perspective. For years I have done work to try and understand the theory of jazz through a piano keyboard and have been trying to transfer that knowledge through the guitar. Thanks to Sir Johnny’;s workshop, I was able to confirm that I must be doing something right with all that experimentation and self-learning. More than that, I now have some understanding as to how Johnny Alegre approaches jazz guitar and this big musical language called jazz itself. Would I say that the workshop was a success? I would say yes simply because my understanding of how and why jazz guitar is what it is has improved vastly thanks to Sir Johnny.

So, how did it all end for me? Well, like a star-struck fanboy, I fumbled around thanking the man for the stuff I learned and I asked permission to publish this post (with snippets of the recording and photos). As star-struck as I am, I forgot to introduce myself properly, despite trying to converse with him three times, and I forgot to purchase his latest album (which I will BTW) despite having prepared some cash for it. I even made an embarrassment of myself by asking, “What was that piece you played at the end?” only for him and another member of the audience to tell me that it’s Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” in a tone that seemed like, “Isn’t it obvious that Johnny’s playing ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’? Duh…” Oh well, if I do meet him again, I’ll take note of these things and hope to be a bit more composed and refined in the way I conduct myself in front of him.

If time permits (and if I am allowed to do so), yours truly will  transcribe some of examples Sir Johnny performed in the workshop and make them available here (in standard notation and tab). Watch out for Part 2 of this piece as I try to retell some of the things I have learned from Mr. Johnny Alegre.

For more information about Johnny Alegre, his latest and past albums, and his other projects, please visit this Facebook page or his website.

A Fairbanks Piano at Club Balai Isabel

My family and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to escape everyday life for a day and a half in a place called Club Balai Isabel. It’s a vacation spot in Talisay, Batangas where we enjoyed a great view of Taal Lake and Volcano, buffet-style meals, and cozy accommodations. Though it was brief, what more can we ask for? It’s a trip sponsored by my wife’s employers that gave us a chance to live like kings and queens for a day. From my own personal end, it provided me with an opportunity to refresh my creative juices and play a fantastic antique piano.

Other than the fact that it was a good opportunity for quality time with my wife and child, I thought of the trip as a way to get inspired to write some new music. Since we decided to bring our own vehicle instead of riding on a hired shuttle service, I was able to bring my nylon-stringed guitar and Zoom H4n recorder, and a laptop, essentially a portable studio ensemble. I was able to record a few musical ideas on the H4n after gaining a fresh new look at the sights, something that I have taken for granted on numerous occasions. However, the afternoon of that day led me to discover this antique piano.

The piano was an upright piano built in 1910 by the Fairbanks Piano Company of Southern California. It had the appearance and feel that you would expect from antique instrument. It was no Yamaha, Steinway or Bechstein but it did have a remarkable character or its own.

As you would have noticed, I am a sucker for pianos and other fine instruments. I just felt the need to play it and see what I can do with it. My wife was initially resistant but then she asked permission on my behalf so that I can play it. As you would see from these videos, I really took advantage of that opportunity.

In order to make my sense of shame and shyness disappear, every time I played on the piano I ordered a drink or two (one of which is for my son). I even managed to record my son playing J.S Bach’s “Bouree in E Minor” on that instrument. I also was able to perform a number of pieces while I was there.

About a few hours before returning to Manila, I was able to record myself playing that wonderful piano, and so here’s how it all turned out as I played for a very small audience consisting of myself, microbes, some flies and perhaps one or two people passing by. I played five pieces all in all: an improvisation, Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, Debussy’s 1st Arabesque and “Reflets Dans L’Eau” from Images Book I,  and a sketch of my original composition entitled “Waltz on Water”. You can watch and listen to my “live set” below courtesy of the all-powerful YouTube. I’d also like to dedicate this performance to the late Bernabe “Totchie” Galang, my uncle who’d probably have no idea what I’m playing:

01 – Improvisation

02 – “Revolutionary” Etude (Op. 10 No. 12) by Frederic Chopin

03 – “Arabesque No. 1” by Claude Debussy

04 – “Reflets Dans L’Eau” by Claude Debussy

05 – “Waltz on Water” by Mark A. Galang

Would I say that it was a concert-worthy performance? Of course not. I’ll be first to admit that even though I desire such skills, I’m no Lang Lang, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, or Cecile Licad. My excuse would be that I’m more of a composer rather than a concert pianist so I was more of trying to coax out some more creative juices courtesy of that piano rather than trying to please a crowd. After all, you won’t expect me to play pop tunes for solo piano for some people who merely dine and treat pianists as if they were Muzak machines. Anyway, the point is that I really felt happy being able to play a vintage instrument that was still in playable condition, and that doesn’t stop me from trying to act like as if I were a concert pianist, hehehe!