Quest for The Holy Grail

UP College of Music alumnus, Johnny Alegre also known as “Jazz Journeyman” is one of the most revered jazz guitarists and composers from Manila.  He heads the jazz group Johnny Alegre AFFINITY and world music innovators HUMANFOLK.  He was named Best Instrumentalist by the Aliw Awards in 2014, and was conferred The Outstanding Professional Award as “Premier Jazz Composer, Guitarist and Recording Artist” last 2016.

UP College of Music alumnus, Johnny Alegre also known as “Jazz Journeyman” is one of the most revered jazz guitarists and composers from Manila.  He heads the jazz group Johnny Alegre AFFINITY and world music innovators HUMANFOLK.  He was named Best Instrumentalist by the Aliw Awards in 2014, and was conferred The Outstanding Professional Award as “Premier Jazz Composer, Guitarist and Recording Artist” last 2016.

I initially met Johnny sometime in 2005 when my job in a tobacco company entailed partnering with cool record labels like Candid records.  I knew that Candid regarded Johnny as one of their greats and  I can’t remember now if we did have Johnny Alegre AFFINITY play in one of our events but I do recall getting a copy of that self titled CD and I enjoyed it very much.

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Our paths crossed again when one time during last year’s Record Store Day (Pilipinas) at Buddha Bar Manila, we were both digging through the same pile of jazz records.  Then all of sudden, we at the same time came across a peak of what turned out to be an excellent copy of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi.  As I was about to hold the record, his quick reaction made him snatch it first. And with a wide grin, he politely asked me if he could check out the record.  He scrutinized the cover and vinyl like he was tuning his guitar for a major gig.   I knew that instant that he was no ordinary vinyl collector.

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Hey Johnny, when did you start collecting vinyl records and how did it all began? 

The short answer is, when the Sgt Pepper album hit the store shelves — it grabbed my attention. How the interest started has an entire backstory.

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My mother’s family house which I lived in at varying lengths, had a lot of 7” records just lying around as soon as my uncles and aunts moved on to other things they liked. I didn’t have permission to use the Stereo system that played LPs, but I was allowed a nifty all-plastic turntable –an RCA Victor 45-EY2 that played 7″ 45 RPM singles. Someone had hooked it to a tube radio (one of those models made by Radiowealth). It sounded great to my little 4-year old ears.

Collecting was the farthest idea yet. Records were commodities I played on a turntable like kids played Pokemon cartridges on a Gameboy console, it was a toy. I listened to Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Rogers, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, The Platters, The Teddy Bears (Phil Spector). I really liked Elvis and the Jordanaires most of all. The records I played were his early songs like “Teddy Bear”, “Blueberry Hill”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “I Wanna Be Free”, stuff like that.

Here is what my toy turntable looked like:  https://youtu.be/zbJMTO4UJDU

Fast forward to Grade 2 during a school fair, when I heard the most incredible music in the p.a. system, a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll with 3-part vocal harmony and the clearest, most resonant sounding guitars I’d heard — it was The Beatles. Everyone I knew in school was talking about them. We had a neighbor who played Beatles songs very loudly on his stereo, it was just unavoidable. So I didn’t feel the need to buy Beatles records just yet because it was everywhere anyway, even on tv. There were weekly shows back then like Shindig and Hullabaloo where we watched the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Julie Driscoll, and much later in a weekly called Beat Club, I watched heavier acts like Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, and The Who. But rock ‘n’ roll music literally got us in trouble here for a while with the grownups — after that infamous Beatles episode in Manila and Lennon’s Jesus quip in America, and the Rolling Stones running afoul with the law. When the Fab Four reemerged as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band after months of nothing, that was when the hippie flower power thing found a rallying point, when we kids experienced a “revolution in the head”. Everything changed.

That was like the real new beginning in my view, when we high school boys grew our hair down to our collars, and we saved our school allowances to buy copies as best we could of all those fantastic LPs, 12″ long playing records coming out with fabulous artwork. The album covers were unique and special at every turn, that grabbed us all especially and I felt I wanted a real piece of this action. A good number of my friends got into an album buying frenzy which I was eager to be a part of.

It was an era of classic rock records with all the gimmick covers and beautiful album design concepts you could think of. Gatefolds, 3D photos, zippers, inserts, posters, die cuts, every concievable packaging gimmick to match the amazing hits that came out every single week. It was non-stop. Each weekend, there was always something new and exciting to see and hear and rave about. Music was a total experience in those days — we vicariously lived the songs. I could almost speculate that it was some form of astral projection, when someone sat down after spinning the record and he stares transfixed into the album cover. Woodstock happened, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, CSNY, Chicago Transit Authority, BST, Delaney & Bonnie, John Mayall, and so forth, in no particular order. Music, art and lifestyles all converged like a force of nature. That was when I started collecting records. Vinyl piracy also emerged, when counterfeit copies from Taiwan of all the latest LPs sprung out like a can of worms –I used to go to that shop in the corner of Raon Street and Quezon Boulevard which was where all the counterfeit vinyls were sold. They were so cheap, selling for as little as Php15 a disk, with bond paper covers held together by a cellophane sleeve. The records were made from colored vinyl but were very thin and sounded trebly but it brought in a lot of good music to the masses. That’s how unknown groups like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and Jethro Tull got famous here in Manila.

Do you remember what is the first record you ever bought? 

It must have been either the Sgt. Pepper LP or the Magical Mystery Tour double-EP with the gatefold cover. From there, I think it was Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys album. Then, Disraeli Gears from Cream, followed by the Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed LPs from the Stones. Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane. The Beatles White Album –which I still have. It was an avalanche.

The inserts were fascinating. And hit songs were getting longer, they no longer fit the standard 7″ side so sometimes songs were split into parts 1 and 2, like when “American Pie” came out, which I hated because of all the hype. The extreme hit song was Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” which lasted an entire 12″ side. When Abbey Road came out, the songs were strung up so tightly it would have been dissapointing to cut them up. Speed up the clock to the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”, which was a radio hit that we wanted to take home, from their outstanding Fillmore East album, how long was that song? “Stairway To Heaven” turned Led Zeppelin into demigods.

And Miles Davis, there’s only one way, other than live, to listen to him, which is to listen through an entire side.

How many records do you now own? 

Quick answer: 30 archival boxes, each box containing roughly 35-45 albums depending what packaging they have.

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What I have is an accumulation of records I owned since when I started –which I kept well preserved in my mom’s room through a very long period when they were usurped by the CD boom. I have some really sought after vintage records in near mint condition. My Pinoy Rock and OPM collection, for example, was transported to the present day by a time machine. Those and a fast-growing accumulation of audiophile pressings and limited editions some vinyl snobs lump into a stereotype (pun intended) called “reissues”. They don’t realize that, technically, any record being stamped after its first run is a reissue, because new stampers were made from new acetate masters that have to be recut. Anyway, before I buy a reissue, I read the reviews first mainly in Discogs and the Steve Hoffman forum, to verify who the mastering engineers are, which pressing plant they were made, the differences in SQ, and so forth. I wish I could buy more remasters from Bernie Grundman and Bob Ludwig, and Steve Hoffman of course.

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Archival boxes provide the obvious additional layer of protection from dust, heat and moisture, shelf wear, and any random scrutiny by house guests. The boxes also make sorting the records easier. For example, my Coltrane collection is in one box together with collabs and sideman albums with Miles and Monk. My Miles Davis LPs go into another box. I have a Hendrix box, a Led Zeppelin box, a Clapton box, a Jeff Beck box, a Pat Metheny box, a John McLaughlin box, a Weather Report and Wayne Shorter box, and so on. My Beatles collection, group plus solo, occupy several boxes, and that’s a very challenging collection to sort — the U.S. Capitol albums have their own, the Japan pressings have their own, the EMI/Parlophone have their own, and so on. But I was able to create a system for myself so I don’t go crazy looking for anything. On the downside, I need to rotate the boxes top to bottom so I could vary my playlist. That’s physical exercise.

What kind of music genre, artists were you interested during the start?  

I grew in real time through the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll through classic rock starting from Elvis when I was in short pants, through the British Invasion, though British Blues, Psychedelia, Folk-Rock, Hard Rock and early Prog, Jazz-Rock, Bebop, Post-Modern Jazz, Guitar Jazz, World Music and certain varieties of classical records such as works of Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and so forth.  I would be ruining my budget so I learned early on to impose self-restrictions on my collecting habit.

What are you into now?  Could you share some records that you are currently hooked on?

Short:

Right now, I’m basically just upgrading my collection and filling in the holes. And then gradually buying newer collections that I glossed over, like the Velvet Underground, or Chess Records, that I liked but never bought.

Longer:

Since I began buying records again, I’ve learned a lot about nuances that I never minded in the past. I learned to check and verify vinyl pressings, for example. Long ago, I simply wanted an album with pristine covers and disks without scratches. I get really picky to a fault (I think I’ve become notorious already for being such a NM snob) but actually it is my method to self-regulate the endless spending.

What is/are your most cherished vinyl record/s and why? (Please show photo/s)

Right now (which will.change tomorrow) …

— Their Satanic Majesties Request De Luxe Edition (Rolling Stones)

— Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis) 45 RPM box set on Mobile Fidelity

— Yardbirds ’68 (limited edition)

 

 

— Borboletta (Santana) Speakers Corner pressing

— Live At Leeds (The Who) 1st Decca pressing

— Shakti (John McLaughlin) 1st album OOP

— Open (Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger & The Trinity)

— Believe It (Tony Williams Lifetime)

They all (1) sound fantastic on my turntable setup and they are (2) very pricey and (3) they are terribly hard to find already.

What album do you have the most copies of?  How many do you have? (Please show photo of the collection) 

Right now, I have four variant pressings of Led Zeppelin II, going on five. I am continually upgrading. I have five copies of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” although the Bernie Grundman pressing is just way too expensive for me — who knows, maybe I could trade for it one day. I lost count how many copies of Sgt Pepper that have come in and gone out of my collection — right now I have the JPN red stereo vinyl which critics say approximates the 1st UK pressing in SQ, and even more quiet — plus I have the Giles Martin stereo and mono remasters, which are amazing. I also collect Beatles Capitol Records on variant labels (rainbow, orange, target, purple) for strictly historical and fanboy reasons. I also collect records with collectible deadwax markings, such as Led Zep III “Do What Thou Wilt”, Let It Be “Phil+Ronnie”, Sometime In New York City “War Is Over”, and so on. This gets really esoteric and I consider it the audiophile’s holy grail — I don’t want to give away too many secrets here. {haha}

 

 

Is there still a record out there that you are still searching for?  What is it?

Still a handful. It will take money, patience and time. I’d be thrilled to find a mint-condition copy of Herbie Hancock’s “Fat Albert Rotunda”. Or maybe an authentic NM copy of any Beatles album on Vee Jay Records — all the copies I’ve seen are counterfeit or swapped out, except one time but the condition it was in was so deplorable. I’m still on the hunt for a near mint U.S. copy of Jingle Bell Jazz with the Miles Davis track. There’s a rare Guitar Player live double LP from the 70s with memorable performances by Bucky Pizzarelli, John McLaughlin, and so on, and that is almost impossible for me to find. There are also some mythical LPs such as John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery playing together, live at the Newport Jazzfest, that I’ve never seen. Did it really exist?

Name your top 5 “desert island discs” LPs from your library?

1 BB King — Cook County Jail

2 Miles Davis — Tribute To Jack Johnson

3 John McLaughlin — My Goals Beyond

4 The Who — Who’s Next

5 The Beatles — White Album

6 Rolling Stones — High Tide And Green Grass

You’re an established and well respected musician, tell us how you got into playing the guitar?  Who are your guitar heroes?

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I loved Scotty Moore who played guitar for Elvis and gave him a lot of class, until I heard George Harrison who was so underrated and intense in the most clever ways, then the Clapton-Beck-Page triumvirate who trailblazed the blues revival, then Hendrix for just being so soulful and orchestral and brave, and then BB King because his playing was so direct, and then John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth, John Abercrombie and John Scofield for their unabashed musical vocabulary and mastery of time and space, then Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny for their lyricism and story-telling. And through the cracks, Joe Pass who was a huge learning experience for me, Duane Allman for his energy, Larry Coryell for being so different and quirky, Andy Summers for his innovative rhythm guitar work, Eddie Van Halen for flash, Robben Ford for his tone, Peter Bernsteon who took BB King to the next level, Tosin Abassi for what I still do not know, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder for taking the guitar into mysterious places.

Aside from vinyl records and music, what are your other interests or hobbies?  Any other things you collect?

I have a graphic novel hardcover collection and comicbook singles dating as far back as Crisis On Infinite Earths and the original Dark Phoenic Saga. My first comicbook was Fantastic Four (vol.1) #48 but I let those comics escape me. I’m still shaking my head about it.

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What or who inspires and motivates you? 

Home life. There’s nothing like it. I like travelling far but my bed is unrivaled. {haha}

Aside from yourself, any other vinyl or music collector you think should be featured?

My friend Butch Saulog’s jazz collection is without peer. For an eclectic collection, the master is Ricky Jalbuena.

Where can we buy your music?  How much are they?

I have a UK pressing of the Jazzhound CD that sells for P500. The CDs from MCA Music and Candid Records Philippines cost only P350. Just send me a legit private message in Facebook or email buszmail@gmail.com for your requests.

 

Interview by: Derick B. Villarino / Photos by: Johnny Alegre (and some from on-line)

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