Bandleader Villena plays big band

by Junji Quimbo

Posted at Aug 07 2010 12:34 PM | Updated as of Aug 07 2010 11:48 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Mel Villena is one passionate musician and bandleader. Taking a break from his “day job” (he is currently musical director of ABS-CBN’s musical reality show Twist and Shout), the pony-tailed maestro showcased some of the country’s finest ensemble musicians in an evening of big band music recently at the Ten02 Bar in Quezon City. Until it was pulled off the air, Villena also did the musical charts for the musical show The Singing Bee on the same network.

Mel Villena playing the sax with the Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino (AMP) Band.


With a huge baritone saxophone strapped to his torso, the 51-year-old arranger led the Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino (AMP) 20-piece band through a diverse repertoire of standards, rock songs, a Beatles tune, a movie theme, and yes, even a disco classic. On that evening, the audience literally had a blast.

Sitting quietly in the trombone section was another maestro, Romy San Jose, principal trombonist of Filharmonika, together with the renowned Ronnie Marqueses. In the trumpet section, veteran Nestor Gonzaga led his younger wards. The top notch saxophone section featured in-demand sax/flutist Michael Guevarra.

From one tune to the next, multi-instrumentalist Villena coaxed and synced his musical team through complex time signatures like a master midfielder directing plays in a football match. The band responded with impeccable sensitivity. The rhythm section with keyboardist Ria Osorio, crack bassist Simon Tan, and drummer Jun Austria was outstanding.

The explosive opening number, Don Sebesky’s "Bluer than Blue" set the tone for the brassy evening. On the standards, "After You’ve Gone", "Too Close for Comfort" and "Rock This Town", the horns were crisp and the solos were inspired.

Maestro Villena surprised the audience with two iconic Steely Dan tunes. "Aja" and "Kid Charlemagne" are not really conventional big band staple but with the bandleader himself on baritone sax, they pulled it off.

On "Aja", the brass deftly played the melody and the warm middle section only to explode into a dizzying drum and brass exchange sandwiched by the tenor sax solo of Joey de Guzman easily calling to mind the unforgettable Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter conversation in the original recording.

Three vocalists

Still another highlight came when Villena cued-in not one but three vocalists. Arthur Manuntag had the audience singing along a rousing version of the Beatles’ "Come Together" and Van Morrison’s "Moondance".

Cookie Chua doing "God Bless the Child" was a winner. With her soulful voice soaring above the blaring horns, Chua’s rendition showed once more why she is regarded as one of our better blues interpreters.

To hear Skarlet Brown (a.k.a. Myra Ruaro) live, specially in a big band setting, is always an event in itself. She captured the hearts of the audience with her beautiful take on "My Funny Valentine".

By the time maestro Villena called in reed master Michael Guevarra to lead the 70’s disco hit Wild Cherry’s "Play That Funky Music", the crowd was ready to party.

It has been written elsewhere that jazz crowds can be maddening. They are oblivious to time, and drift in whenever they please. But they are also oblivious to the elements. The Ten02 audience that Monday was no different. Despite the venue’s inefficient air conditioning, the audience patiently sat through as the bandleader called in the numbers and introduced the soloists. And most importantly, they gave the band their loudest applause. Everyone felt warm but no one complained.

Still the crowd wanted more. The band obliged with Pat Metheny’s "See the World" featuring the fleet-fingered solo of guitar player Noel Santiago.

Villena is quite passionate about the AMP Big Band’s mission to preserve the Filipino cultural heritage in a music genre that is partly rooted in the western jazz tradition. Together with other veteran musicians, he is at the forefront in organizing regular workshops and clinics aimed at exposing young talents, regardless of musical inclination, and growing their skills in the art of ensemble and solo playing.

The idea is to get them to play together with much sought after mentors who collectively symbolize the Filipino musician’s globally recognized sense of harmony and technical skills. The AMP Big Band has such a deep talent pool that on any given occasion, the instrumentalists and master musicians have to share band duties with other equally accomplished players.

With maestro Mel Villena at the helm of the AMP Big Band that evening, the experiment was pretty much a success.

The AMP Big Band performs on alternate Mondays at Ten02 Bar, 43 Scout Ybardolaza St., Quezon City. The set starts at 8:00 p.m.