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Nguyen Le: Tales From Viet-nam

The hybridization of western and eastern cultures has most often borne offspring of surpassing strength and beauty; no surprise, then, that the fusion of jazz and Asian music cultures has provided some of the most adventurous and exhilarating recordings of the last decade. The examples include pioneering efforts by Fred Ho, Jon Jang, and Francis Wong; to that list you can now add the first of these albums by the Vietnamese-French guitarist Nguyen Le, the marvelous Tales From Viet-nam.

Leading an octet that includes horns and synths-as well as traditional Asian zithers and vocalist Huong Thanh’s intense evocations of her ancestral land-Nguyen Le has constructed an elegant and moving program, with most of the pieces derived from traditional Vietnamese melodies. The sweetly pungent trumpet work of Paolo Fresu provides yet another element, which Le exploits both as a western jazz instrument and as a descendant of the Asian bugles of antiquity. The piece entitled “The Rice Drum” proves emblematic in its use of trumpet, voice, and traditional percussion on the martial theme-before Le’s electric guitar screams in and completes the cross-cultural circuit.

Le’s roots include the fusion jazz of the 1970s, which flowers today in the slashing, searing timbre of his guitar; some have compared this to John Scofield, but Le favors a much cleaner edge to his sound, leaning more heavily on the jazz-rock of John McLaughlin. He clearly counts Joe Zawinul and Weather Report as important influences, and one delight of this album lies in hearing the various references to that band’s recordings. On “The Banyan Tree Song,” the synthesizer voice derives directly from one of Zawinul’s favorite keyboard patches, while other adapted Vietnamese melodies called “Ting Ning” and “The Black Horse” could almost have leaped from the Report repertoire. And Le’s zither-like guitar solo on a traditional song called “Hen Ho” actually quotes Weather Report’s famous “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” With such references, Le actually reminds us of Zawinul’s early use of world music, and makes us aware that a big part of Weather Report’s strength lay in its blend of west and east.

The guitarist’s stake in fusion finds a stronger focus on Three Trios, his latest date, which lives up to its name precisely. Le’s own descriptions of these three groupings-which he has named Silk, Silver, and Sand-bears repeating. He thinks of the first trio, which comprises bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine, as “precious but strong silk which weave the interplay between musicians;” indeed, this much-traveled rhythm section anticipates the flow and shifts rhythm and harmony accordingly. German bassist Dieter Ilg and Danny Gottlieb make up Silver, which has the most conventional take on electric jazz-“sparkle of electricity, boisterous & graceful lightning,” in Le’s words. The impassioned French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons joins with percussionist Mino Cinelu in a trio that emphasizes lighter textures and the inspiration of Iberian and Brazilian folk music: “Sand of the deserts that haunt the musician’s dream of elsewhere.”

Even here, traces of Asia still inhabit in Nguyen Le’s guitar work; the nasal pinch of Vietnamese singing creeps in as the notes decay, and the busiest solos still incorporate the occasional telltale interval or phrase. As well they should. On Three Trios, Nguyen Le’s pan-culturalism gives his music a reach and purpose beyond his obvious skills as a guitarist. And on Tales From Viet-nam, his overt exploration of that pan-culturalism results in a minor masterpiece.

Originally Published