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The ones to watch: The 201 Big Band Project


Tomo Cayabyab and Nicole Asensio sang for the Pikong-led 201 Big Band Project.
Toma Cayabyab and Nicole Asensio sang for the Michael Mark Guevarra-led 201 Big Band Project.

Save for a handful of brave collectives still standing strong, there isn’t much of a big band scene in Metro Manila.

Which is why I nominate Michael Mark “Pikong” Guevarra for a national jazz award (obviously invented by yours truly). The young U.P. College of Music professor and lecturer bravely debuted the 201 Big Band Project, a band comprised of 19 musicians playing damn good bebop, swing, and all that jazz.

It matters little that their maiden performance at Mandaluyong’s 12 Monkeys late August was not without flaws — gotta crawl before you can walk; gotta walk before you can run. And part and parcel of that process is stumbling and skinning your knees.

So if rhythmic subdivisions disintegrate mid-song on a tune or two, I say it doesn’t matter. Because the music felt damn good, from the swinging bebop and mainstream jazz stylings of "Sing Sing Sing" to the Dianne Schuur curlicues of "I Just Found About Love". Keen observers will note that the 201 BigBand Project swung hard all night.


Pikong Guevarra
Michael Mark 'Pikong' Guevarra is a UP Music teacher and lecturer.

Of particular note to me personally was the 70’s music-type stuff – namely, In The Stone, and medleys of Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder.

Let me explain.  A Count Basie-type chart has as part of its nature, its very DNA, a predilection for swing. Only a philistine brute with carrots for ears and turnips for fingers would even have the capability to make such arrangement sound bad. It would take a perfect storm of kapalpakan to prevent such a number from swinging.

On 70’s music type tunes, the markers are more subtle, and thus trickier to hit. So it’s a testament to their skill and talent that the 201 BigBand Project passed with flying colors.

Every generation has its master mentors. Pikong and I are of a generation whose mentors include legendary Mel Villena of AMP bang and renowned drummer “Mama” Mar Dizon, who provided beats for the original Side A, Parliament Syndicate and Artstart just to name a few.


Toma Cayabyab is the son of The Maestro Ryan Cayabyab.
Toma Cayabyab is the son of The Maestro Ryan Cayabyab.

The 201 Big Band Project had two guest singers that night: Toma, the muy simpatico son of Ryan Cayabyab, and Nicole Asensio, whom many of us will recognize from rock band General Luna.

Toma acquitted himself very well on that old warhorse “The Way You Look Tonight”. Being Mr C’s progeny, his stellar musicianship — good time, good intonation, noteworthy phrasing — is perhaps no surprise.

And then there’s Nicole Asensio, who happens to grace the cover of FHM this month. Usually when a rock singer tackles jazz tunes, it’s weird and awkward. But not Nicole. With a musical core that is heavily blues-based, an early classical training, and a genetic legacy that includes Fides Cuyugan and Iwi Laurel, Nicole put quite a treatment to songs like “I Just Found About Love” and “Save Your Love For Me”.

Nicole’s intonation is impeccable, her timing unimpeachable, and her phrasing, to die for. But what truly made me fall in love with Nicole were her rendition of big band fave, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and two originals she wrote: “Sakali” and “Leader for a day.”


Nicole Asensio who was with rock band General Luna.
Nicole Asensio who was with rock band General Luna.

As a songwriter, she’s got the usual grab bag of tricks — the pithy phrasing, the juicy juxtaposition, the scampering scansion — but her melodic sense is something else.

Now marry that virtuosity with horns whose parts were written and arranged by master musician Michael “Pikong” Guevarra, what you have is a perfect storm of Music with the pretentious capital M.

If you're fortunate enough to bear witness to such an opulence of  beauty, one goes home muttering, “the kids are alright”. — LA, GMA News