Nguyen Le: The More Possibilities the Better

Nguyen Le: The More Possibilities the Better

by Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2001 Mike Zwerin

Paris: Because jazz is historically an American art form does not mean that it will necessarily remain one forever. In the past, jazz giants of each generation stretched their ancestors's tradition. Now that there seems to be no further place for it to grow, youngsters are looking towards the horizon to create cross-cultural traditions. There are more and more jazz schools, the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) has larger and more culturally inclusive conventions each year. Graduates are turning "the sound of surprise" into a common denominator. The shape of jazz to come is shifting from vertical to horizontal. Americans are trained to play in the odd meters common to the music of the rest of the world. Everybody knows "Summertime." Anyone can play the blues.

The accomplished French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen (pronounced Nouyen) Le is one of the most creative of the many jazz players exploring the marriage of "America's classical music" with traditional music from everywhere else. Le focuses on the traditional music of Viet Nam, where his roots are. But he does not stop there. The personality of his album "Bakida" (Act) is built by, among others, Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, Turkish flutist Kudsi Erguner and the American Chris Potter on tenor saxophone. In the notes for the album, Le wrote: "I like to think of this record as a banquet, to which each guest has come through his own way, to converse about nearness and distance, sweet and salt . . . Then, if emotions are in tune, secret connections come into light and music can become a universal language."

Bear in mind, however, that the politically-correct Establishment school of thought dominant in the music's homeland - as expressed in the much-ballyhood, General Motors- sponsored, 10-episode, 19-hour Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis documentary film "Jazz" - considers foreign relations like Brazilian bossa nova and Django Reinhardt's "Gypsy swing" that have already fused with mainline jazz to be tangential at best. (Foreign relations except African, that is.) The Austrian/American synthesist and composer ("Birdland") Joe Zawinul has been investigating the Turkish tradition with Turkish musicians. When an important American critic complained that it sounded like a "Turkish square dance," Zawinul happily agreed: "Yeah! Isn't that great?"

Born in Paris in 1959 of Vietnamese parents who came to France as students ("my father has tons of diplomas"), Le speaks fluent English. But it is accented, and being "foreign" is generally a handicap in what many still consider an American enterprise. On the other hand, it helps to make him, in the words of British critic Chris Parker, "refreshingly broad based and multi faceted." Le, who is not in the least tempted to move to New York, attributes this in part to the "diversity of contemporary Parisian culture."

"My music has to be here," he said: "France is the country where you meet musicians from all over Africa, and from Asia and South America as well. So much of my music is based on the meeting of cultures. On the other hand, I have to accept the fact that I will probably not have world-class success here." While New York is still the financial, marketing and distribution center, Paris, though considered provincial by New Yorkers, has been called the capital of African music, and Le told Parker: "I'm deep into African music. I've always found the relationship between black African and North African musics very interesting." The Algerian Cheb Mami is among the guests on his North African flavored album "Maghreb [ed; sic] And Friends" (Act), along with Vietnamese flavor from the remarkable traditional singer Huong Thanh.

Le's Vietnamese-based music is blues-oriented, with flatted thirds, fifths, sevenths and ninths - "blue notes" - everywhere. (He "hated" major chords as a child.) Or he'll detune his guitar. His album "Tales of Viet Nam" (Act) is built around Huong Thanh's voice and the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. "Vietnamese music," Le said, "is in- between Chinese and Indian music, like its geographical position. Also like the cooking." Le solves problems created by the incompatibility of Vietnamese and Western scales by bending notes and using a "special very fast" vibrato. His dense Flamenco chords have been known to land on Hendrixian harmonics. Reaching across continents, he might segue from a Pygmy tune into a rock strut. A West African folk dance can be followed by arabesque ornaments, a double-time bebop line or a funk groove. All of which, he admits, would not go down very well in Hanoi. Because he has found that, "in each country, the music Westerners like is not the same as what the natives like. Young people listen to Madonna everywhere. It's not easy to find traditional Vietnamese music in Vietnam."

Vietnamese and jazz music do not always fit. Bebop's altered chords do not sound very Eastern. And it does not play the same way everywhere. His record label, Act, being German, he is popular in Germany. Although, he said: "Frankly, some Germans think we don't groove enough. They want to dance to my music. My music is not for dancing." He works regularly in Britain - a collective trio with drummer Peter Erskine and Michel Benita on bass is scheduled to play Queen Elizabeth Hall and tour Scandinavia this summer. All of this makes him one of the rare French players to have a reputation abroad.

At home, where there is a large Vietnamese community, his haunting marriage of cultures has immediate and obvious impact. Audiences listen hard, as though hoping to discover something new and important to them. When he visited Vietnam in April, he found, to his surprise, that there was a jazz school in Hanoi. Which brings the story full circle. What goes around comes around. Le concluded: "The more possibilities the better."


Mike Zwerin wrote this piece for original publication in the International Herald Tribune.


C o m m e n t s

Jazz Dance in Vietnam 1 of 1
Liezel November 22, 01

I'm Liezel from the Philippines. I got a job offer there in Vietnam for a leisure complex. I am really in to dancing. I have background in dancing here in the Philippines. I am actually part of a professional jazz dance group. I plan to take jazz, adult ballet and tap dance classes during my spare time when I start working there so that I won't feel lonely. Are there dance studios that offer such classes there in Vietnam? Around how much are the rates? Hope to hear from you regarding this matter.

Thank you.

LIEZEL

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