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Peter Erskine/Nguyen Le/Michel Benita: ELB

Guitarist Nguyen Le has become the Parisian equivalent of Bill Frisell: a “changes player” who is not averse to kicking on nasty effects pedals or playing simply and folksy when the tune merits. But on this cooperative outing with drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Michel Benita, Le throws his own signature into the mix with the various odd bends and nontempered slurs he pulls off on the guitar, alluding to his Vietnamese heritage on pieces like “Sao Sen,” “Zigzag” and “Free at Last” with a very personal touch on the fretboard. The only American guitarists who come close to this kind of decidedly non-Western type of phrasing are Dave Fiuczynski and Joel Harrison, both of whom play the nontempered fretless guitar as well.

The comparisons to Frisell are obvious on pieces like Peter Erskine’s sweet heartland ditty “Autumn Rose” and “Bass Desires” (a tune that Erskine had previously recorded with Frisell on Marc Johnson’s 1985 ECM recording of the same name) as well as on Le’s ballad “Bee.” The guitarist’s edgier aspects come to the fore on his distortion-laced, whammy bar inflected “Pong” and on Erskine’s “Now or Never,” and he blows with boppish facility on Benita’s “Pirates.”

Of course, this isn’t the Nguyen Le Show. Erskine brilliantly blends textures and tones throughout, slamming one moment, playing gently and melodically with mallets another moment, seducing or swinging with brushes the next. And his relaxed yet facile touch on “Meanwhile” provides one of the album’s highlights. And Benita, a remarkably interactive bassist who plays a more subtle but key role here (like Larry Grenadier in the Brad Mehldau trio) gets to shine on his buoyant “Country Boy” and also on Erskine’s mysterious “Meanwhile.”

But ultimately it is the presence of Le that is so vital to this record. A masterful, inventive player who has cultivated a wholly unique voice on the instrument, he ranks right up there with Frisell, John Scofield, Mike Stern and Allan Holdsworth in the post-Hendrix world of jazz guitar.

Originally Published