One of the world’s foremost and incomparable World Jazz Guitarists / Composers / Producers Nguyên Lê was kind enough to respond to AL’s questions in between sessions of his “Homescape” album to discuss his latest, illustrious ensemble project, “Walking on the Tiger’s Tail” .
Abstract Logix: Did having a brush with cancer affect your thinking about your music or life any differently? I know in part that’s what “Walking on the Tiger’s Tail” is about from reading the liner notes you wrote. How has that manifested in your life now, nearly 2.5 years later after recording the album?
Nguyên Lê: With hospital life for several months I learned to be even more patient than I was before. With major illness I learned both the quiet acceptance of destiny and the urge and intensity of living. I experience music the same way; every moment in music is a miracle!
AL: You wrote in “Walking on the Tiger’s Tail” (WoTT) liner notes that most of the songs were inspired by Taoist stories. Do you practice Zen or Buddhism? If so, how has that affected your approach to music? Your approach to life in general?
NL: I don’t practice any religion. It’s more about a philosophical approach, a way of thinking and an attitude in front of life that was inspired by reading those Chinese texts.
AL: What were some of the ancient Chinese texts that you referred to in the liner notes? Some people may want to read them as well.
NL: It’s mainly “Dao De Jing” from Lao Tze, Zhuang Zi, a collection of texts from Zhang Zi, & Yi Jing, the ancient divination book.
AL: There isn’t a bassist on WoTT. After playing with the some of the world’s finest (Carles Benavent, Renaud Garcia-Fons, Michel Alibo, etc.), why did you decide not to use a bass player on this album?
NL: Sure. Some of my bass players friends still don’t understand. In fact this started from a non-musical fact: the unique understanding we have together with Art & Paul. Once we played in trio and I felt that this combination of human and musical beings was something to keep preciously, and to develop wisely. There was still some rhythm support missing, but no bass function missing, as we can play bass lines with piano left hand, bass clarinet or octaved guitar. I like also the idea that therefore the soloist must have the mind and the responsibility of also being a rhythm player. So this bassist-free concept has nothing against bass players, it’s more an exploration of new soundscapes that can happen because of it (like the drum & bass concept).
AL: One of your trademark sounds I’ve discovered – from having heard many of your albums over the years – is your guitar’s doubling and / or dancing with harmonies with the saxophone. Sometimes it’s very subtle, other times more overt. Did that start in “Ultramarine”? Why do you like doing it? (I love it; I just wanted to hear your opinion).
NL: Wise listener! This started indeed with “Ultramarine”. I love the singing force of a guitar / sax unison – it is melody at its best lyrical strength and I must say that I worked a lot on the fusion of expression of both instruments (w/ trumpet it works very well too, as with Paolo Fresu) In WOTT it was more a chamber music concept, with everybody having his own line and moving melody leadership between instruments.
AL: Playing with Paul really gives you the opportunity to explore that more, correct?
NL: Correct. The rare instruments Paul plays ask for a special work on the sounds that go with them. I wrote all the music of this album while thinking of him (and Art, of course) and his very identifiable sound.
AL: “Wingless Flight” has elements of jazz, world percussion and rock guitar. Very cool song. There’s an element of Oregon’s music; of course Paul’s presence helps in that regard. But the melody line reminds me of something Ralph Towner might write… Yet your guitar solo is nearly raucous, almost rock like. Interesting contrast. Please discuss the piece further.
NL: In fact the melody reminds me a of something that Oregon had pioneered in the ’70’s when during their original “meeting” between Western classical music with jazz, they became the most European sounding American band, and defined what European jazz could be. In a way I started from them and added rock energy and non-western music to the meeting! Oregon has long been one of my favorite groups.
AL: Your guitar solo in “Yielding Water” guitar is so cool. I hear elements of AfroAmerican blues, Middle Eastern scales, rock-in-general, outside bebop, and Asian / Chinese / Vietnamese… it’s wonderful. It’s almost a microcosm of your approach to soloing in general, as it were. Care to discuss that a little bit?
NL: You said it. After and while integrating the lessons of traditional music from all over the world, my goal is to bring them to a true and homogenous language, as much in the guitar improvisation as the compositions themselves. This became prominent in my “Bakida” CD.
AL: Also “Yielding Water” has a beautiful melody/harmony by you and Paul McCandless. Tell me more about that line.
NL: Again, the idea is to have two lead melodies at the same time, so the listener can choose which she / he likes to focus on. Sometimes it’s harmonizing, sometimes it’s counterpoint. I’m a lot inspired by Vince Mendoza, who’s writing for big band is full of these multiple melodies.
AL: Walk me through “Jorai”… that’s a great piece! Sounds East Indian at times. Chinese, too. And your guitar solo texture/playing is just wild. Great track!
NL: “Jorai” is based on a traditional song from a –Vietnamese ethnic minority of the same name. I think it’s played on kind of circular harp with strange tuning. There are two different tonalities on each hand. I first transcribe the tune, then develop each hand part to two complete lead lines. Then added some interesting rhythms and harmonies. Lots of ethnic Vietnamese music can sound Indian as well as Indonesian. Here I emphasized the Indian side while asking Jamey to play his hadgini and kanjira instruments.
AL: “Totsu!” has such a cool guitar sound at the beginning. Is that your synth guitar? Tell me more about that tune…
NL: Which part ? The first neo-African guitar part with arpeggios doubled by the piano? I overdubbed my Parkerr electroacoustic guitar, which gives a bright and large dimension. Then there’s an ambient pad, which you find back behind Paul’s solo. This is my usual guitar pad sound, made with lots of different delays w/ different times, modulation rates and depths (using the Lexicon PCM 81). But I reworked this sound that I played live at home with the Ohmboyz plug in, with a program that transposes one octave down, while looping it like a delay.
AL: Are there any other tracks you’d like to discuss in particular?
NL: In fact the process of this recoding was interesting: we recorded two days in a live jazz situation while on tour in Germany. I brought all the multi-tracks back home and worked for two weeks on editing every track, choosing the best takes, adding effects and overdubs, refining sounds. Then I came back to the German studio (Bauer studios, Ludwigsburg, where they produce lots of ECM records) to mix during four days, including a 5.1, mix which was made for provision.
AL: Do write most of your music on the guitar? (Chord changes, melody lines, etc.) I’ve noticed that throughout your work, many of your melodies can be melodies are quite somewhat complex yet ultimately “rememberable” not unlike a motif in Western classical music. Of course, I find this prevalent in WoTT quite frequently. Truth be told: it’s one of the many elements I’ve always admired about your approach to composition. Discuss your approach to songwriting, please.
NL: Everything is possible regarding songwriting: singing or rhythm 1rst; chords 1rst, bass line 1rst;, melody 1rst, technical guitar lick or synthesizer sound, sampling, or an idea stolen from a previous listening, poetic, textual or philosophical ideas, etc.. For me, the computer is the central tool to keep track, organize, develop and orchestrate all these elements. It’s a fantastic tool because it frees the composer of having to play what he writes. After finishing a composition, I always spend some days to learn it on guitar. There’s a main rule I have, though: everything should be singable.
AL: Your approach to the electric guitar is so unique. Your melodic lines often have an angular, Eastern-influence intervallic approach to them. Did you develop that when working on “Tales from Vietnam” or has that always been an element to your writing/playing?
NL: It mainly started while studying Vietnamese traditional music with Tales from Viet Nam — but first in the writing then in the playing. I also learned a lot when doing Maghreb & Friends and also just by ear while listening precisely to Indian and African music.
AL: For the guitarist / musicians reading this, how would you recommend someone begin practicing more with intervals to help understand how you utilize them in such a unique fashion?
NL: First transcribe some phrases you like. Short phrases can be enough; for example, there can be so much to learn in just two notes played by Hariprasad Chaurasia, by example. Then try to emulate the sound and phrasing of that motif . Once you’ve learned that, try applying that phrasing and those techniques in other phrases of your own.
AL: Along those lines, what do you practice? Study?
NL: I do exactly what I just described. Last time was working on material from Indian mandolinist U. Shrivinas. But I don’t have much time to do this. These days, when I’m not touring, I’m either preparing for a next record (Huong Thanh’s fourth CD) or writing music. Also learning some new software at the moment.
AL: I think its wonderful that there are scores of your songs on your website to download and learn from. Did you personally write all those parts out or did someone transcribe them for you?
NL: I wrote everything. That’s the scores with which the tunes were created and are being played. Well, sometimes musicians.
AL: Are those what you used as studio charts, for example when recording “Maghreb and Friends”?
NL: For “Maghreb” there’s a lot of orchestra scores. When I give sheets to the musicians each one has his own part, except if it’s trio music.
AL: When did you learn to read music? Is that something you gained early on in your music education?
NL: As a self-taught musician, I learned to write music because I needed to fix my compositions. Then because I was in some reading-demanding situations, like National Jazz Orchestra. In fact I’m not a good sight reader – except for [chord] changes of course. In sideman situations, I always ask the music to be sent in advance.
AL: You haven’t played acoustic guitar much on any of your albums… Is that something we might here from you in the future?
NL: I’m slowly trying to include acoustic guitar as my instrument, but I must say I’m always frustrated when I play acoustic : no whammy bar, big body, heavier strings where bends are more difficult, etc.… But I love the sound, the immediate presence & the natural rhythmic efficiency.
AL: Intonation being an obvious one, what are some of the other challenges you encounter when playing your fretless guitar?
NL: It’s another frustrating but loved instrument. Besides intonation, the main issue is sustain (not much) & attack (very medium & sometimes too round).
AL: What inspires you?
NL: Everything, from the song of a bird to the perfume of a flower, an event on TV news or a specific musical idea. But everything is still pretty abstract & hazy, I cannot say this comes from that except for the specific musical ideas, like a special rhythm from North Africa, or a precise scale.
Born in Paris from Vietnamese parents, he began to play drums at the age of 15, then took up guitar & electric bass. After graduating in Visual Arts, he majored in Philosophy, writing a thesis on Exoticism. Then he devoted to music, creating “ULTRAMARINE” (1983), a multi-ethnic band whose CD “DÉ” has been considered 1989′ s best World Music album — Philippe Conrath, Libération.
Nguyên LE is a self-taught musician, with a wide scope of interests: Rock & Funk (Jim Cuomo, Madagascar tour 84), Jazz standards & contemporary Jazz (bass player with Marc Ducret, guitar player with Eric Barret), Improvised Music (Yves Robert), Singers (Ray Charles), Contemporary Music (André Almuro, Tona Scherchen, Marius Constant, Mauricio Kagel), Ethnic Music : African & Caribbean with “ULTRAMARINE” , Algerian with Safy Boutella & Cheb Mami, Indian with Kakoli, Turkish with Kudsi Erguner, Vietnamese with his Dan Bau (traditional one-stringed instrument) teacher Truong Tang.
In Sept. 87 he was chosen by director Antoine Hervé to play with the O. N. J. (French National Jazz Orchestra). Within this big band, he played with such musicians as Johnny Griffin, Louis Sclavis, Didier Lockwood, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Randy Brecker, Toots Thielemans, Courtney Pine, Steve Lacy, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones. Nguyên LE’ s work also deals with programming synthetizers, effects & computers as well as writing orchestral pieces: PROCESSOR composed, arranged & recorded on CD O.N.J. 87 & LUNIK II co-arranged with Dominique Borker & performed by the O.N.J. 1989.
In Sept. 89 he records “ULTRAMARINE”’s 2nd album “DÉ” and in May 90, his first album as a leader: “MIRACLES” recorded in the U.S.A. with Art LANDE, Marc JOHNSON & Peter ERSKINE. At the same time he works with such musicians as Michel Portal, Miroslav Vitous, Trilok Gurtu, J. F. Jenny Clarke, Aldo Romano, Daniel Humair, Dewey Redman, Andy Emler, Jon Christensen, Nana Vasconcelos, Glenn Ferris, Christof Lauer, Paolo Fresu, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor …
In May 92, after a month tour with Paul McCANDLESS on winds, Art Lande (p), Dean Johnson (b) & Joël Allouche (d), he records his 2nd album “ZANZIBAR”, which gets the « ffff » award by Télérama. In Jan. 93 he records “INIT”, a trio with André Ceccarelli, François Moutin & guest Bob Berg, while setting up a new band on the music of Jimi Hendrix, w/ Corin Curschellas (voc), Steve Argüelles (d), Richard Bona (b). Since Jan. 93 he’s been a frequent guest soloist of Köln’s WDR Big band, especially with composer / director Vince Mendonza. Nguyên Lê plays on three of his projects: Jazzpaña, Sketches w/ Dave LIEBMAN, Charlie MARIANO, Peter Erskine, & Downtown, w/ Russell Ferrante. In April 94 he’s the guest soloist of The New Yorker, a suite by Bob BROOKMEYER, with Dieter Ilg (b) & Danny Gottlieb (d). With these two musicians he set his first trio, & recorded “MILLION WAVES” (ACT 9221-2) in Dec. 94 . About this CD, Télérama writes: This trio brings him to some musical spaces which he had not even imagined, & which are pure poetry.
In the meantime, he’s playing in trio with Michel Benita(b) & Peter Erskine, recording on Michel Portal’s new album with Ralph TOWNER (g), & working with Ornette COLEMAN on one of his contemporary music pieces, Freedom Statue. In June 95 he’s invited by WDR Big Band in Azure Moon, with the YELLOWJACKETS & Vince Mendoza. In July 95, in Stuttgart Festival, he’s one of the guest guitar players to celebrate the Universe of Jimi Hendrix, alongside Trilok Gurtu, Terry BOZZIO, Cassandra WILSON, Jack BRUCE, Vernon REID, David TORN, Victor BAILEY, Pharoah SANDERS… Recently he has been playing with John McLaughlin, Michel Petrucciani, Markus Stockhausen, Enrico Rava, Ray Anderson, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Dave Douglas, Wolfgang Puschnig…
In April 96, Nguyên Lê creates “TALES FROM VIÊT-NAM” (ACT 9225-2), a project on Vietnamese music, with a 8-piece band blending jazz & traditional musicians. With stage director P. J. San Bartolomé, he starts Of the Moon & the Wind , a complete show where traditional & contemporary Vietnamese dancers are integrated to the “Tales from Viêt-Nam” orchestra. The CD has received a great welcoming from international critics: Diapason d’Or, Choc du Monde de la Musique, Choc of Year 1996 Jazzman, 2nd best CD 96 for “JAZZTHING” (Germany), Best CD 96 on radio TRS 2 (CH), a minor masterpiece JAZZTIMES (USA).
On 4/97 Nguyên Lê releases his 5th CD, “3 TRIOS” (ACT 9245-2), with Marc Johnson / Peter Erskine, Dieter Ilg / Danny Gottlieb & Renaud Garçia Fons/ Mino Cinelu. JAZZIZ Magazine USA says : « At times, jazz guitar can sound staid – but not in the case of N. Lê. He’s forever breaking boundaries for our benefit ». He has recorded 2 CDs with Paolo Fresu’s quartet : « Angel » (2/98) & « Metamorfosi » (4/99).
On 5/98, 6th N. Lê record : MAGHREB & FRIENDS (ACT 9261-2). an exploration of Maghreb musical traditions & a deep collaboration with Algerian musicians. « Far from a false world music, N. Lê simply touches, with force & intensity, to universality » F. Medioni. N. Lê produced the 1rst CD of Huong Thanh, Moon & Wind (ACT 9269-2), entirely done in his home studio. He also has been nominated for the « Victoires de la Musique 1999 » award. His last CD, “BAKIDA” (ACT 9275-2), based on his regular trio with Renaud Garçia Fons (b) & Tino di Geraldo (perc, dr) plus guests from all over the world like Kudsi Erguner, Chris Potter, Carlos Benavent… This CD has been voted best jazz album of the year by CD Compact (Spain). ELB, a new trio CD has just been recorded in Rainbow studios, Oslo, with Peter Erskine & Michel Benita. He’s touring with Terri Lyne Carrington’s band, with Geri Allen, Matt Garrison & Gary Thomas & plays with Maria Schneider. Sept 2002 : 2nd CD of Huong Thanh “Dragonfly” (ACT 9293-2). In June 2002 he’s invited by the Metropole Orchestra (NL) to play his music arranged by Vince Mendoza. “PURPLE” (ACT 9410-2), an album celebrating Jimi Hendrix is released in sept 2002. In Sept. 2002 it’s n° 1 on the charts of UK magazine Jazzwise. Mangustao (ACT 9423-2), Huong Thanh’s 3rd album, released in Jan. 2004, is awarded as Choc de la Musique by French magazine Le Monde de la Musique.
With his old friends pianist Art Lande, woodwind player Paul McCandless and percussionist Jamey Haddad he releases in March 2005: “WALKING ON THE TIGER’S TAIL” (ACT 9432-2): “A universe where the alliance between acoustic and electric, improvisation and writing, inner delicacy and virtuosic expressivity reach the ideal balance.” (Le Monde)
For his latest album “HOMESCAPE” (ACT 9444-2) he invited his friends, the trumpet player Paolo Fresu and singer and oud-player Dhafer Youssef to his home studio. The duos express the multiple musical experiences and influences of the artists and are mixed with electronic sounds created by Nguyên himself.