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Nguyen Le: Nguyen Le: Signature Edition 1

Chris May By

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Nguyên Lê
Signature Edition 1
ACT Music

It might seem perverse to begin a review of a Nguyên Lê release with the observation that there is "too much fusion" on it, as, increasingly since the late 1990s, it is to the fusion mast that the guitarist has nailed his colors. But it is legitimate when considering the anthology Signature Edition 1, a double-disc set which starts with Lê's recordings for Universal in 1989-90, and then works through his ACT catalogue up to and including 2009.

The discs chart Lê's progress towards full-on, multi-cultural fusion from beginnings which were relatively mono-cultural—or duo-cultural, given that since its inception Lê's music has blended Vietnamese and American traditions. Fusion fans will love the selection; but other listeners may instead hear a promising talent succumbing to the blandishments of the marketplace, making the chronic fusioneer mistake of confusing cultural appropriation with accommodation, and failing to fulfill his potential.

In fact, the discs aren't sequenced from 1989, but from 2009, and then backtrack through 20 years to the Universal recordings, a reverse chronology which listeners unconvinced by fusion may find doubly dispiriting. The 24 tracks were chosen by Lê: the Signature Edition series is modeled on ECM's :rarum series, for which the featured artists compiled their own anthologies, but goes further than :rarum in allowing the inclusion of tracks recorded for labels other than the host. The other collections in the first batch of releases—all well annotated, double-disc sets—are by guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Lars Danielsson and drummer Wolfgang Haffner.

Lê opens, or rather concludes, his collection with a track from Ultramarine's (Universal, 1989) and two tracks from his own Miracles (Universal, 1990), made with pianist Art Lande, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine. Other early to mid period recordings include two tracks from Lê's Three Trios (ACT, 1997) and two more from his Tales From Viêt-Nam (ACT, 1996). These tracks reveal a gutsy, astringent and risk-taking musician, weaving traces of his Vietnamese cultural heritage into the American tradition, and playing music which subscribes to jazz music's defining "sound of surprise."

For everyone bar fusion fans, the rot sets in towards the end of the 1990s, with two tracks from Maghreb & Friends (ACT, 1998), on which Lê added North African music to the Vietnamese/American blend along with cameos by West African kora and Peul flute. At this stage, the music still had some substance, but the anodyne concoctions of later years can be detected in preparation—an over-egged, over-sweetened dessert course lacking bite or lasting flavor but with a mass of gaudy surface decoration. The nadir is reached with the touristic "Zafaran," made with singer and oudist Dhafer Youssef for the duos album Homescape (ACT, 2006), and again with the nasty, ersatz "African" vocals on "Sangam," from Saiyuki (ACT, 2009).

Lê, however, may not be an entirely lost cause. Even as it ends, or rather begins, Signature Edition 1 includes some worthwhile music: in particular "Weaving & Awaiting" from Fragile Beauty (ACT, 2008), a collaboration with the singer Huong Thanh, also to be heard on Tales From Viêt-Nam. Focused, discriminating—and utterly magical—this is "fusion" and Nguyên Lê at their best.

Tracks: CD1: Magic Constant; Sangam; La Rossinyol; Weaving & Waiting; Kokopanites; Zafaran; Louxor Dance; Totsu!; Snow On A Flower; Cold Winter, Faraway Land; Voodoo Child; Sao Sen. CD2: Dding Dek; Encanto; L'Arkha Li Jeya; Ifrikyia; Foow; Dance Of The Comet; The Wind Blew It Away; The Black Horse; Lupi Pilu; Miss One; Miracles; U Song.

Personnel: Nguyên Lê: guitar, programming (CD1#4, CD1#6, CD1#7), samples (CD1#4, CD1#10), electronics (CD1#6, CD1#7), synths (CD1#10, CD1#11, CD2#3, CD2#4, CD2#7, CD2#8), guitar synth (CD2#6, CCD2#12), synth programming (CD2#9); Meiko Miyazaki: koto (CD1#1, CD1#2, CD1#4), vocals (CD1#2); Prabhu Edouard: tablas (CD1#1, CD1#2), vocals (CD1#2); Hariprasad Chaurasia: bansuri flute (CD1#2); Markus Stockhausen: trumpet (CD1#3); Claudio Puntin: reeds (CD1#3); Steffen Schorn: reeds (CD1#3); Frank Sackenheim: reeds (CD1#3); Arkady Shilkloper: French horn (CD1#3); Joe Sass: tuba (CD1#3); Lars Danielsson: bass (CD1#3); Peter Erskine: drums (CD1#3, CD1#5, CD1#12, CD2#6, CD2#10, CD2#11); RED URG 4: string quartet (CD1#3); Huong Thanh: vocals (CD1#4, CD1#10, CD2#7, CD2#8); Francis Lassus: radiator (CD1#4); Hao Nhiên: zither (CD1#4, CD2#7, CD2#8), dan nguyêt lute (CD1#10), sao flute (CD1#10), dan bau (CD2#7); Etienne Mbappé: electric bass (CD1#4, CD2#12); Alex Tran: percussion (CD1#4); Michel Benita: acoustic bass (CD1#5, CD1#10, CD1#12, CD2#7, CD2#8); Dhafer Youssef: oud and vocals (CD1#6); Paolo Fresu: trumpet (CD1#7, CD2#7, CD2#8); Art Lande: piano (CD1#8, CD1#9, CD2#9-11); Paul McCandless: oboe (CD1#8), soprano saxophone (CD1#9), English horn (CD1#9, CD2#9), reeds (CD2#9); Jamey Haddad: drums and percussion (CD1#8, CD1#9); François Verly: bells (CD1#10), percussion (CD1#10, CD2#7, CD2#8), marimba (CD2#7, CD2#8), keys (CD2#8); Bijan Chemirani: zarb def and rek (CD1#10); Dominique Borker: piano (CD1#10); Ladislav Szathmary: cello (CD1#10); Meshell Ndegeocello: electric bass (CD1#11); Terri Lyne Carrington: drums (CD1#11); Karim Ziad: percussion (CD1#11), drums (CD2#3, CD2#4), gumbri (CD2#4), vocals (CD2#4); Aida Khann: vocals (CD1#11); Renaud Garcia-Fons: acoustic 5-string bass (CD2#1, CD2#2, CD2#5); Tino di Geraldo: drums and percussion (CD2#1, CD2#2); Kudsi Erguner: ney flute (CD2#1); Illya Amar: tuned gongs and marimba (CD1#2); Carles Benavent: electric bass (CD2#2); Michel Alibo: electric bass (CD2#3, CD2#4); B'net Houariyat: vocals (CD2#3, CD2#4), percussion (CD2#4); Stefano di Battista: alto saxophone (CD2#3); Jean Jacques Avnel: kora (CD2#3, CD2#4); Bojan Z.: piano (CD2#4); Alain Debiossat: soprano saxophone (CD2#4); Aly Wagué: African Peul flute (CD2#4); Mino Cinelu: percussion (CD2#5); Marc Johnson: acoustic bass (CD2#6, CD2#10, CD2#11); Simon Spang Hansen: saxophones (CD2#7, CD2#8), flutes (CD2#7); Joël Allouche: drums (CD2#7-9), percussion (CD2#9); Steve Argüelles: drums (CD2#8); Dean Johnson: acoustic bass (CD2#9); Mario Canonge: piano (CD2#12), synth (CD2#12); Pierre Olivier Govin: saxophone (CD2#12); Bago: percussion (CD2#12); Mokhtar Samba: drums (CD2#12).

Title: Nguyen Le: Signature Edition 1 | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ACT Music


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