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Nguyen Le: Nguyen Le With Michael Gibbs & NDR Bigband: Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon

Ian Patterson By

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It's a bold concept; take Pink Floyd's iconic Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest, 1973) and reinterpret it in a big band jazz setting. With upwards of forty million copies sold, every note, every nuance of Floyd's eighth album is so firmly entrenched in the minds of the band's legion devotees that to tamper with the work in any way is to leave oneself open to facile criticism.

French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê, however, is nothing if not adventurous. Lê has already demonstrated on Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix (ACT Music, 2007) and Songs of Freedom (ACT Music, 2012)—his tribute to classic pop and rock songs of the 1960s and 1970s—that he can breathe new life into old material without being overly reverential. If Lê can tackle Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley, then why not Pink Floyd?

No music is sacrosanct and Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon has been reinterpreted a fair number of times already. The New York dub collective Easy Star All Stars' Dub Side of the Moon (Easy Star Records, 2003) and the all-star progressive rock tribute Return To Dark Side Of The Moon: A Tribute To Pink Floyd (Purple Pyramid, 2006) featuring the likes of Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Dweezil Zappa, John Wetton and Rick Wakeman, have both re-imagined Floyd's seminal work with quite different, yet striking results. In addition, there have been a cappella, bluegrass and string quartet versions of Floyd's seminal work, while Phish and Dream Theatre have both performed DSOTM live in its entirety.

Lê's Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon is not the first time that Roger Waters, Dave Gilmore, Nick Mason and Rick Wright's opus has been stripped of its progressive mantle and rebuilt upon an entirely different aesthetic but it is, in all likelihood, the first time DSOTM has been addressed with jazz sensibilities.

The scale too, on CTDSOTM is bigger. The seventeen-piece NDR Bigband—conducted by Jörg Achim Keller—is augmented by drummer Gary Husband electric fretless bassist Jürgen Attig and vocalist Youn Sun Nah. Veteran conductor/arranger Michael Gibbs arranged three of the pieces, with Lê taking arranging credits for the remainder.

The familiar pulse that announces "Speak To Me," with its "I've been mad for fucking years..." section is translated in multiple languages including Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Spanish -an acknowledgment perhaps that DSOTM's themes of mortality, pressure, greed, insanity and alienation are universal ones. It's an early indication of Lê's intention to rewire the music.

Rewire it Lê certainly does. The hour-long suite is interspersed with fifteen minutes of material composed by Lê. The shimmering, Indian tonality of Lê's guitar on "Inspire," Sun Nah's wordless incantation on the ethereal "Magic Spells," the colliery brass band intro to "Hear This Whispering," the lyricism of fretless bass and guitar on "Gotta Go Sometime" and Claus Stötter's trumpet solo on the spacey "Purple or Blue" combine to weave a distinctive sonic narrative on the DSOTM blueprint.

Water's lyrics are left intact or reproduced instrumentally; Sun Nah interprets "Breathe," the final verse of "Time," "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse." Lê's guitar conjures Water's vocal parts on "Time," "The Great Gig in the Sky," "Money" and "Us and Them." Given Sun Nah's tremendous vocal range—and with the memory of her recital at the closing of the Sochi Winter Olympics still fresh—it must have been tempting to employ her on "The Great Gig in the Sky," for if anyone could do justice to Clare Torry's spellbinding original performance it would be Sun Nah. That Lê resisted the obvious route says much about his intentions on CTDSOTM.

Lê and Gibbs make full use of the NDR Bigband's colors, with delightful overlapping or cascading layers of reeds and brass, riffing saxophones and the occasional roaring ensemble section—notably on "On the Run"—plotting a very personal course. A fleshed-out "Time" is given a dub reggae makeover whereas "Money" marries jazz-funk and African grooves—with Husband and percussionist Marcio Doctor stoking the NDR's engine. "Us and Them" begins as an ambient gamelan piece before the warm waves of the NDR embrace Lê's guitar melody.

There are several notable soloists in the NDR's ranks: alto saxophonist Christof Lauer gives no quarter on "On the Run" with a searing free-jazz improvisation; Vladyslav Sendecki's piano solo on "Hear the Whispering" is achingly lyrical; alto saxophonist Fiete Felsch carves a mellifluous solo on Lê's haunting arrangement of "Us and Them." Lê too, is in inspired form, peppering the suite with a number of electrifying solos. His guitar soars spectacularly on "Money" but this is perhaps eclipsed by his effort on "Any Color You Like"—both rank among the most emotive improvisations he's committed to record.

The success of CTDSOTM, however, lies more in the arrangements for the whole ensemble. There are many highlights to be sure, but the final stretch beginning with the dreamy "Us and Them" through "Purple On Blue" and on to "Any Color You Like," "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" stands out for the myriad moods, accents and shifting dynamics that unfold.

CTDSOFM has already had a run out at the Moers Festival 2013—with Maria Pia De Vito in the singer's role—but given the logistics involved, large-scale touring seems unlikely. It is, however, a happy coincidence that CTDSOTM comes out at the same moment as The Endless River (Columbia, 2014) Pink Floyd's first studio album for twenty years, and, with 2015 marking the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd's founding, there are certainly good reasons to carry this music to live audiences elsewhere.

Nguyên Lê's CTDSOTM is an ambitious, uplifting and frequently exhilarating project whose textural layers and conceptual riches are gradually revealed upon repeated listening. It should appeal to Floyd freaks, progressive big-band addicts and the musically curious alike.

Track Listing: Speak to Me; Inspire; Breathe; On The Run; Time; Magic Spells; Hear This Whispering; The Great Gig In The Sky; Gotta Go Sometime; Money; Us and Them; Purple or Blue; Any Color You Like; Brain Damage; Eclipse.

Personnel: Nguyên Lê: electric guitar, electronics; Youn Sun Nah: vocals; Gary Husband: drums; Jürgen Attig: electric fret less bass; NDR Bigband: Jörg Achim Keller: conductor; Thorsten Benkenstein, Benny Brown, Ingolf Burkhardt, Claus Stötter, Reiner Winterschladen: trumpets; Fiete Felsch: alto saxophone, flute; Peter Bolte: alto saxophone, flute; Christof Lauer: tenor/soprano saxophones; Lutz Büchner: tenor/soprano saxophones; Sebastian Gille: tenor/soprano saxophones; Marcus Bartelt: baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Dan Gottshall, Klaus Heidenreich, Stefan Lotterman: trombones; Ingo Lahme: tuba, bass trombone; Vladyslav Sendecki: piano, synthesizers; Marcio Doctor: percussion.

Title: Nguyen Le With Michael Gibbs & NDR Bigband: Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ACT Music

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