Guitarist Edgar “Koyang” Avenir devoted much of his not inconsiderable talent to making others sound and look good, while he himself remained in the shadows. He had perfected that most subtle art-accompaniment-that pushed the soloist forward into the spotlight while rendering the musical backing as unobtrusive as possible.
What can you say about someone whose absence now looms larger than his presence when he was still in his earthly incarnation?
As seen from the number of tributes paid at last month’s Jazzfest, the local jazz community still feels the yawning vacuum left behind by one of its guiding lights, the guitarist Edgar “Koyang” Avenir, who died last September at the age of 61.
A long-time fixture in the local jazz scene, Avenir looked for all the world like a dissipated fourth musketeer, but he played like a slumming angel, coaxing ethereal melodies from the hollow-bodied electric guitar that sometimes seemed to be an organic extension of him. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, he devoted much of his not inconsiderable talent to making others sound and look good, while he himself remained in the shadows. He had perfected that most subtle art-accompaniment-that pushed the soloist forward into the spotlight while rendering the musical backing as unobtrusive as possible.
As a de facto musical director and arranger, he played on and improved everyone’s records-from Mishka Adams’ to Sandra Viray’s. Ironically, he never even got close to recording an album under his own name.
Self-effacing to a fault on stage, Avenir often played with his back to the audience, or facing sideways. A vocalist once half-jokingly asked him if he was autistic. Yet when he emerged from the shadows to play a solo, one could almost hear the jaws drop in the audience.
A musician’s musician, Avenir eschewed flashy showboating in favor of witty, concise musical statements that, to trained ears, revealed a deep familiarity with advanced harmonic theory and complex chord substitutions-all the more impressive when one learns that he was largely self-taught.
This formidable knowledge was, however, leavened with a deep and abiding love for all sorts of music, from jazz standards to kundiman to classic rock to Top 40 pop hits. It was this eclectic taste, as well as a sense of mischief, that kept his music from becoming ponderous and cerebral. Before anyone had coined the term “mashup,” Avenir could, in his head, connect such seemingly disparate music as Cole Porter and Led Zeppelin and execute it effortlessly on the guitar. Avenir had that gift for making the complex sound simple and the difficult sound easy. As any experienced musician will tell you, that is the mark of true master
“Koyang played with his soul attached to every note and chord he delicately chose,” said vocalist Zenaida Celdran in a message when Avenir was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 7th Annual Jazz Phil.-USA in Los Angeles, California.
“His skill with the guitar and his panoramic knowledge of music allowed him to play music that endeared him to his listeners and fans, yet for musicians and those with an in-depth understanding of it, there was always that deeper and greater underlying dimension to his sound which gave it its melodic richness and beauty. He was truly a virtuoso. Edgar was born to play music and he lived it. Aside from Edgar’s musical virtuosity, he had a humble and generous nature which endeared him to people who came his way, and everyone who knew him can attest to this.”
From all indications, Avenir was a paradox: a virtuoso who preferred to stay in the background, a supremely talented musician who preferred to lend his skills to other people’s music (or perhaps more accurately, expressed his individuality while playing on other people’s gigs or records.)
“He called himself an isolationist,” says Celdran, who was Avenir’s companion for the last years of his life.
“[Bassist] Meong Pacana told me, ’Do you know Koyang’s a genius, and not just musically?’ I said, I know. That’s why he’s quirky. He told me, ’Don’t expect me to be like other men.’ He warned me in the beginning, because he could be very difficult, but a nice person.”
The details of Avenir’s early life are sketchy. What we know comes from snippets recalled by those who were close to him.
Born in 1950, Avenir grew up in UP Diliman since his parents worked for the state university and were entitled to on-campus housing. He was said to have built his first guitar from a plank yanked from the family house’s staircase. Eventually, his father gave him his first real instrument, a ukulele, when he was laid up with chicken pox. He had an abiding love for the Beatles, but in college he discovered the music of Chet Atkins. That seemed to seal his fate as a guitarist.
“He listened daily to the Chet Atkins Hour on the radio,” recalls Celdran. “It was on from 10 to 11 a.m. But his classes started at 11 a.m., so his mom would abort his listening so he would not be late for school. Next day, Egay decided to push back the clock by 30 minutes so he could listen to the program.”
Bassist Ed “Sarge” Cariño was a neighbor in UP and Avenir’s first bandmate. They would jam daily after classes, playing rock and blues, but Avenir also listened to the UP Rondalla and string quartet.
Despite his obvious aptitude and inclination, Avenir did not enroll at the UP College of Music, but instead took a variety of courses ranging from Library Science to HRM, according to various accounts.
In any case, Avenir was an omnivorous reader and autodidact. No one seems to recall whether he finished college, but by the late ’60s-early ’70s, he was making his living as a professional musician, playing in various local clubs and doing tours of duty in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. It was on these tours that Avenir immersed himself in the emerging jazz fusion genre.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, everybody sounded like somebody else,” recalls bassist Colby de la Calzada, who played on and off with Avenir for the better part of four decades, including a memorable gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
“Even the solos were copied note for note. Plakado. Edgar was one of the first guys who shifted away from that. Maybe the first time he would play the solo from the record, but after that he would play it his own way. On a good night he could fly. He didn’t have to labor over the changes. He could get into a flow.”
Back home, he became a much in-demand sideman, playing sessions with such diverse artists as Bong Peñera’s Batucada and the Apo Hiking Society. This might have been the beginning of Avenir’s affinity for accompaniment.
“After we all started playing in bands in the ’70s, the next thing we did was to become session musicians, and when you’re in that field and that frame of mind, you sort of get used to being the hired help, being a professional musician,” adds de la Calzada.
“Once you gain more experience and stay in the industry longer, you sort of mellow down,” he continues. “Specially with Koyang, he sort of got that ingrained in him. It also has to do with his personality. He’s not a loud guy to begin with, he’s an intellectual, he’s not a Type A personality. He just likes to be in harmony with his surroundings. Maybe in the back burner he had his own ideas that he wanted to record, but he was pretty much happy with what he did.”
It is tragic that only a fraction of Avenir’s genius is preserved on record. But his real legacy now lies in the many younger musicians that he influenced, and mentored in his own unique way.
“I remember after a gig he took me out to eat at Rufo’s,” recalls Celdran. “Around 2 o’clock in the morning, other musicians would be coming from their gigs, and we wouldn’t get home until six in the morning. Young kids would come and talk and talk, guys would crowd around him and ask questions, and these are good musicians. I enjoyed watching him hold court, because it was then that he realized his importance. Otherwise he was really self-effacing.”
One of those young musicians who would sit at Avenir’s feet was guitarist Paolo Blaquera.
“Koyang was a master of unobtrusive playing, accompanying,” he says. “He was one of the best accompanists that I’ve ever heard. He doesn’t step on anyone’s toes musically, specially the singer’s toes, or the soloist’s toes. I learned that from him, it’s harmony you’re creating, it’s not your ego that’s being fed.
“His way of teaching is, you go to his gig, he makes you jam, and that’s it,” Blaquera adds. “He doesn’t spoon-feed you. I remember the first time I had a master class, so to speak. He invited me onstage. I didn’t know what was going to be played. He just said, it’s in B flat-don’t worry, you’ll hear it.
“One thing he kept saying over and over to us, never try to imitate anyone, do your own thing, find your own sound. Try to get what I’m doing but do it your own way. If you try to imitate someone else, you’ll always be second best. The best you can be will be a clone. So right now I’m doing my own thing but I have some pretty big shoes to fill.”
In an essay, vocalist Jo-B Sebastian, another one of the younger musicians that Avenir mentored, wrote:
“There are many things that I’ll miss about Egay. He was an outrageously talented musician, gifted with perfect pitch and world class sensibilities; he could pick up a song after a single listen, effortlessly adding his own personal touches on the fly. He was a loyal friend, relentlessly putting the needs of those around him first. He was my mentor, ready to guide and correct, encouraging me to grow and explore, happy to sit back and let me shine. He was a constant positive and awe-inspiring force in my life, and yet I find it is the smaller mundane things that I miss most, small little moments in my everyday life that remind me of him. A passing chuckle that sounds just like his, late night conversations of music-related matters, a stray tune that finds itself blaring through my speakers, a particularly jazzy chord progression, yes, even the bitter smell of cigarette smoke, bring back fond, happy memories.
“Of the numerous things a great musician like Edgardo Avenir has taught me, the one thing that I cling to is that music should be a thing of joy, a thing you love, never cumbersome, never a burden. I feel that if you find you are no longer enjoying what you are doing, that you no longer love the music you are playing then it’s time for you to move on. Integrity is something Egay has always reinforced, persistently telling me to listen to my instincts, to never lose myself and I hope I never do. For as long as Egay’s memory remains clear in my mind I will remember these precious things he has left me. He was a musician of epic talent and, for me, the greatest mentor a fledgling musician can have.”