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Pianist Ranel Sarmiento looks forward to Phuket International Jazz Day

Pianist Ranel Sarmiento looks forward to Phuket International Jazz Day

PHUKET: Pianist Ranel Sarmiento’s favourite line-up on stage is a simple three-piece – piano, bass, drums: “That’s what I’m doing on Jazz Day,” he averred during an interview in January. “I decided not to be a slave anymore to these frontliners. This time I want to fly with my rhythm section.


By Marque A. Rome

Sunday 27 March 2016, 11:06AM


Trouble is, the ‘frontliners’ won’t let him.

Come Jazz Day, on April 30, he’s scheduled to play with a duo out of Japan and a guitarist out of New York, in addition to his rhythm section, bassist Kasemsmai Wongchysilpa and drummer Nut Glomchum. The reason: Sarmiento long has been one of Phuket’s most esteemed accompanists and a star in his own right as interpreter, arranger, conductor and composer.

He didn’t set out to be any of those; he wanted to be a guitar player. Sarmiento, 57, from Bacolod, a city of half a million on the island of Negros, in the central Visayas region of the Philippines, started playing aged 5: “I would watch my father’s trio at our house,” he said, “Bill Evans music, all acoustic.” His father was rarely at home, dividing his time between gigs in Manila and Japan – a path his son would later follow. So Ranel was raised by his grandfather, a local lawyer and political figure. His first and last piano lessons were five songs from his father’s repertoire: “He pushed me into it.”

“I played piano because that was an introduction to music for me, but I loved playing the guitar – till high school. I was kicked out of five schools. I’m proud to say I’m a high school drop-out.”

Job offers for drop-outs are not plentiful, however, so at 14, Sarmiento got a job playing piano in a ‘goody-goody cocktail lounge’. “All the older kids and pros had gone overseas, so there were many bars and jazz clubs needing pianists.” He earned 14 pesos nightly “when a pack of Marlboros cost 45 centavos. One dollar was two pesos.”

“The goody-goody part of the lounge was the girls, the bar hostesses. They earned five times as much as I did.”

“Did you get laid?”

“Yeah. The girls bribed me – took me for a night at the beach cottage, gave me a cheeseburger and Chinese fried noodles, which was very popular then. Maybe it was curiosity.” In 1978, aged 20, he left for the bright lights of Manila and was soon hired for a steady gig in Japan; but immigration rules there mandated he play four months then leave the country one month. So for the next ten years he divided his time between Japan, arranging and conducting for a 16-piece band, and Manila, “where the jazz is hot”.

In 1988 he was summoned back to the Philippines, serving as an apparatchik to a locally influential person: “I made lots of money, but things got hot politically with the transition from Marcos to Cory Aquino.” Feeling the heat, he hastened to go abroad: “As it happened, I was hanging out at a recording studio and met a childhood friend; we used to play bossa together. She was making a demo for Phuket Yacht Club and asked me to sit in – but then the agent said he’d take her only if she teamed with me. That’s how I came to Phuket.”

He played Yacht Club and later Katathani, but in 1993 moved for two years to Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Chateau on the Park hotel, a local landmark, with a band comprising members of the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s jazz faculty: “They were purists, only played swing, no fusion or electronics.”

Since returning to Thailand in 1995, he has played at leading hotels in Phuket, Bangkok and Pattaya. Great musicians such as bassist Kiko Bona (whose band will also be performing Jazz Day in Phuket) and guitarist Laserne Dixon have teamed with him for performances and recordings. He’s played jazz festivals in Stockholm and Hua Hin (with a steel drum player) and generally cut a name for himself among jazz circles in the country.

Though he likes living in Phuket, Sarmiento says there’s no place like Bangkok for playing: “It’s a big challenge. The competition is tough. You face musicians from all quarters of the globe and you don’t know what their abilities are. It’s not like Phuket.”

Admittedly, the population of Phuket is rather less than that of the capital. But on Jazz Day, April 30, more than 50 musicians from Thailand, the Philippines, Sweden, Canada, the US, Great Britain, Australia, France, Ukraine, Japan and Russia will be joining Sarmiento on stage – the biggest such event in Thailand and one that is sure to test his mettle.

Phuket UNESCO International Jazz Day, “the 5th Edition”, is proudly sponsored by Phuket City Municipality and The Phuket News. Admission is free. For details, click here.

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