Stars Shine Bright on a Special Night for Fil-Am jazz

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When standouts of Filipino American jazz combine for a concert, you can be sure it’s going to be a memorable night. But when the show also continues groundbreaking work for the community, then the evening becomes truly special.

Jazz singer Jo Canion performs on Oct. 14, 2012, at Yoshi’s jazz club in San Francisco. Backing her up are, from left, pianist Larry Chinn, Ben Luis on bass, Richard Aguon (partly hidden) on drums, and Jonathan Bautista on saxophone. (Photo by Christian Thomas)

The Fifth Annual San Francisco Filipino-American Jazz Festival did just that when it featured singers Jo Canion and Mon David for the festival’s third and last night. The show, held on Oct. 14, 2012, at Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant in San Francisco, was the third consecutive year that Filipino performers took over the stage at the famed venue.

Canion, often dubbed as the “Grande Dame of Fil-Am jazz,” is considered an icon in the Bay Area Filipino community—and deservedly so. She’s the only Filipina jazz performer who can rightfully lay claim to have sprung from the early days of Fil-Am jazz. She grew up and started performing in Stockton, Calif., widely acknowledged as the birthplace of Fil-Am jazz. She still lives there and performs regularly in nearby Lodi. At 80, she has shown no signs of slowing down and can still command an audience with her passionate singing and endearing stage presence.

At Yoshi’s, early on in her set, she declared: “I may be 80, but I can still do it.”

Then she went through her signature numbers such as “Dearly Beloved,” “Inside a Silent Tear,” “Love Ain’t No Fun,” and “Quietly So”—songs about love, sadness and the sadness of loving. One thing about Canion is that there is no light song when she sings it. Each number is deeply felt and moving.

A good example—and definitely one of the highlights of her performance—has to be “Is This the Life I Want to Live?” her own composition to which noted Fil-Am jazz pianist Flip Nuñez wrote the words.

At one point, after a song, she wiped tears from her eyes

But the true veteran of the stage that she is, Canion tempered her numbers with humor. She frequently but briefly paused between songs to joke about her age, for example. Forgetting her lines at one point, she looked up to the audience and said, “You know what I do when I forget? I scat.” And she did.

Later she said she couldn’t wait to get out of her shoes. “I’ve got my tsinelas waiting backstage.”

Backing up Canion were Ben Luis on bass, Richard Aguon on drums and Jonathan Bautista on the saxophone. The three, along with pianist Rey Cristobal, are known as the SF Pinoy Jazz Quartet.

On the piano for Canion’s set was her frequent collaborator, Larry Chinn.

Then Cristobal took over the keys for the second set, which featured Mon David.

Jazz singer Mon David performs during the show at Yoshi’s jazz club in San Francisco. It was the third and last night of the fifth annual San Francisco Filipino-American Jazz Festival. Backing him up are pianist Rey Cristobal, Ben Luis on bass, Richard Aguon on drums and Jonathan Bautista on saxophone.
(Photo by Christian Thomas)

Since moving from the Philippines in 2007, David has developed a strong following with his inimitable style of singing and high-energy performances. Based in the Los Angeles area, he’s a regular at shows that feature both Filipino and non-Filipino talents. He is also known for his scatting, which is like no other. It is always a highlight at his shows. If Canion is Ms. Emotion, David makes a good case for being Mr. Improvisation.

David opened with “Footprints,” an ode to the Motherland that he frequently performs. Then he went through other songs, freely taking from his albums. He performed “My One and Only Love,” “Fragile,” and the Kapampangan “Abe Muku,” among others.

One of the highlights of his performance was “Café Indonesia,” inspired by the Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli tune “A Night in Tunisia,” which David has turned into an entertaining tribute to the stars of Filipino jazz and to jazz itself. (Café Indonesia is the Manila jazz hotspot where some of the biggest names in Philippine jazz cut their teeth in the 1950s and 60s.)

David also performed jazz standards such as “Nica’s Dream,” “No More Blues” and “Waltz for Debby.”

It wasn’t the first time that the Bay Area Filipino Community saw David on stage. In 2009 he was a featured artist at the San Francisco Pistahan/Arts Expo and at the Second Annual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. In 2011, he performed at Savanna Jazz, a club in San Francisco’s Mission District. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he would be back again soon after the show at Yoshi’s.

Perhaps the only thing missing in the show at Yoshi’s was a duet between David and Canion. But given their contrasting styles, that might have been a tad too much even for these seasoned performers. The fact that for a brief moment they were on the same stage, in the same show—one a Fil-Am jazz icon and one a virtuoso from the homeland—is cause for celebration. That it all took place during Filipino American History Month is all too fitting. The pairing is definitely a coup for Carlos and Myrna Zialcita, the tireless couple behind the San Francisco Filipino-American Jazz Festival.

Also to be celebrated is the fact that Yoshi’s has featured Filipino jazz artists as part of the Festival since 2010. The club, which recently marked its 40th anniversary, has long been a premier jazz venue in the Bay Area, showcasing many of the genre’s biggest names. In October alone Spyro Gyra, Ear Klugh and Kenny Lattimore are slated to perform.

“We’d been trying to get Yoshi’s two years before the festival began,” Myrna Zialcita told this writer before the Oct. 14 show. “Initially we did not make headway, but all that is history now. Persistence pays off. We thank Yoshi’s San Francisco and Oakland’s artistic directors for their vision and support.”

Enjoying the show at Yoshi’s were, from left, Edwin Lozada, Evangeline Canonizado Buell, Karen Pennrich, Oscar Penaranda, Carlos Zialcita of the San Francisco Filipino-American Jazz Festival , Genevieve Jopanda, and Evelyn Luluquisen. (Photo by Christian Thomas)

Prominent members of the San Francisco Fil-Am community were in the audience. Among them were community leaders Oscar Peñaranda and Evangeline Canonizado Buell; Edwin Lozada of the Philippine American Writers and Artists Inc.; Karen Pennrich of the Filipino American National History Society of Sonoma County; Evelyn Luluquisen of Manilatown Heritage Foundation; Genevieve Jopanda, national co-chair of KAYA, Filipino Americans for Progress; and former TV news anchor Lloyd La Cuesta, who was the emcee for the night. There were also representatives from the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco.

The show was dedicated to Cornelio Pasquil, noted Fil-Am jazz pianist who was once described by historian Peter Jamero as the “Filipino American Bill Evans.” Pasquil died in September.

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