MANILA -- Jazz music, defined by its improvisation, syncopation, and poly-rhythms finds its roots in blues and ragtime. The music has gone on to be reinvented in many forms and sub-genres as it migrated from the United States to other hemispheres.
And one particular trio is having a blast making music.
On “No Social Relevance,” the opening track of the album "Turtle Bird," Rick Countryman’s alto saxophone flutters, like a wounded bird struggling to find flight. Japanese drummer Sabu Toyozumi and Filipino bassist Simon Tan’s subtle playing hope to encourage the mournful sax to “fly now,” to crib the words from American composer Bill Conti’s stirring theme from "Rocky.” It rises but eventually stays grounded.
Yet on the contrary, and certainly pardon the title, there is social relevance for Filipino jazz and it isn’t grounded at all -- it’s on a resurgence.
There have been the two Adobo Jazz releases, there’s the Simon Tan Trio, and we’ve just seen guitarist Paolo Cortez release his debut contemporary jazz album, "Not By Sight," this late March -- all most welcome additions to the Filipino jazz canon.
Countryman and Tan have put out 10 albums working with either Toyozumi or Switzerland native Christian Bucher on drums all in the last five years. Most of them are on compact disc except the most recent, "Chasing the Sun," that aside from the CD release, received treatment on glorious vinyl.
As such, "Chasing the Sun" is perhaps the first locally recorded jazz album to be released domestically in a long time. The kick is it was done independently.
Not since Japanese harpist Tadao Hayashi, who also called Manila, home, has an expatriate put out so much. Out of his eight albums, Hayashi put out five on them while residing in Manila.
Making up for lost time?
Countryman laughed: “I never thought of it that way.”
The man, along with his fellow musicians, is just doing his own thing for the love of the music.
Countryman grew up in American air bases all over the world as his father was a serviceman. They eventually lived in Tucson, Arizona, before the family settled in Seattle, Washington.
The wanderlust from his youth continued as he grew older. After working for Microsoft in the US, Countryman headed east to Japan for a couple of years then to the Philippines because his Filipina wife, Annie, preferred life in the tropics.
For the most part, Countryman occasionally dabbled in music. It wasn’t much until he met Tan who played with a bunch of rock bands but preferred to play jazz.
“Simon was giving me these constant ‘do-it-while-you’re-still-young' talks and that’s how it happened,” related Countryman. “I recorded a lot of what I performed and I learned on how I can improve.”
Countryman became friends with Frenchman Julien Palomo of free jazz label Improvising Beings. The two bonded over a love of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and most particular, American saxophonist, Sonny Simmons (who passed away just last April 6) with Palomo hearing the influence on Countryman’s style.
Improvising Beings put out the first album of Countryman, Tan, and Bucher in 2016 titled “Acceptance-Resistance,” a melodic and spirited effort.
Reflected Tan on the work with both Bucher and Toyozumi: “Christian is like a freight train (when he performs), you gotta hold on. Sabu, on the other hand, is more colors and tones.”
Added the Filipino bassist: “Free jazz is the pleasure of playing; the complete freedom to play in and out and to play the form or not.”
For his part, Countryman felt the same about Tan’s playing. “Simon is amazing. He’s a sensitive performer who has a good feel for free jazz.”
“I was trying to break into Japan when Julien introduced me to Sabu. And that’s how this partnership began,” related Rick.
It was Toyozumi who introduced Rick to Takeo Suetomo who had his own jazz label in Japan, Chap Chap Records, which released most of the collaborations between Toyozumi, Countryman, and Tan.
Toyozumi, like Bucher, would often fly into Manila for performances.
“That’s just for the love of the craft,” pointed out Tan.
The most recent releases are the twin albums, "Chasing the Sun" and "Turtle Bird," both recorded during a live performance at the Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, Quezon City on the night of December 12, 2018.
“You had to block out the crowd and all the conversations going on so you could concentrate on the performance,” recounted Countryman about the show.
“There was this one guy sitting by himself and was really getting into the music. I made myself look away from him because you start feeling influenced by the crowd while you’re doing free improvisation and you want to stay communicated with Sabu and Simon. It’s hard not to think, ‘Oh, I want to do more to make the guy excited’ but that will mean playing with artificial intent. So I just have to focus on my bandmates.”
And Countryman and Tan had to because Toyozumi was intense that night.
“During the song, ‘Chasing the Sun’ it was the most powerful I have experienced with Sabu and he was driving it. He’s a very spacious performer. He was roaring.”
And that electricity from the show is captured on both "Chasing the Sun" and "Turtle Bird."
"Chasing the Sun," released on both gatefold vinyl (via Chap Chap Records in 2019) and compact disc (2020 on FMR Records), contains two tracks – the title song, and “Impermanence” that aren’t on "Turtle Bird" which boasts of the complete 18-minute exposition “No Social Relevance” that was edited on the record.
"Turtle Bird" also features the tracks, “Red Turtle Bird,” “Lower Depths,” and “Blue Turtle Bird.”
“Each one complements each other and is meant as a companion piece,” explained Countryman. “I hope music fans like it.”