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Paul Zetter – Drifting on a Reed

15 Mar, 2012

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Our jazz reviewer continues to witness Vietnamese jazz evolution at the Hanoi Opera House

The concert last Sunday led by saxist Quyen Thien Dac backed by a Swedish trio at Hanoi’s Opera House was another positive step on Dac’s personal journey to creating Vietnamese jazz.  As he said at the press conference, the group is a merger of Vietnamese spirit and Swedish style – they’re trying to combine multiple elements and apply new jazzified harmonizations to Vietnamese traditional songs as well as Dac’s pieces that draw from his more international jazz pedigree.
The three Swedes all of whom met Dac when he was studying in Malmo, Sweden, are a collective force to be reckoned with; Per Oscar Nilsson on guitar, a soulful foil to Dac’s more cerebral soloing, Johnny Aman, bass, keeping the music rooted in the dynamics of ever shifting foundations and Olle Dernevik, drums, providing with great sensitivity, the textures, accents and conversational counter rhythms so essential in contemporary jazz.
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There’s a new sense of sophistication in this latest project of Dac’s that includes launching his accompanying CD, A Oi. He’s growing as an artist and now has such a prodigious technique on the saxophone that he has more resources at his fingertips to draw on. His writing on Another Northwind, Southern Moments, Thang Long Dance has more depth, sonority and maturity and he seems to yearn for more connection to lost ways whilst still embracing the new.  He’s getting more complex and more proficient – so these are exciting times indeed for jazz in Vietnam

I’m not a big fan of small group jazz in opera houses, the details of bass and drums inevitably get lost in the mix of a hall designed for orchestra. This happened on the uptempo numbers like Market Day, Rice Drum which intensified into slightly uncomfortable maelstroms that did no justice to the fine musicianship of Aman and Dernevik. It felt a bit like when inexperienced teams all chase the ball in a football match instead of holding their positions to ensure organization. I wanted more variety and diversity of tone and this they brought to great effect on the slower soulful numbers like A Oi and To Request The Queen, two re-harmonized Vietnamese songs that oozed feeling and emotional depth. Nilsson’s bluesy lines stretched the furthest outreaches of the song’s harmony  and peaked and troughed beautifully, his reverb infected tone cutting through the Opera House’s orchestral acoustics. He’s a complex musician too and is not afraid to apply all the vocabulary of the guitar to his brand of jazz. Whether it’s chunky chords, picked arpeggios or rangy single line runs, you can hear he’s a fellow jazz explorer like Dac.
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A beautiful surprise came on the almost stiff and unswinging straight four crotchet beat of Southern Moments by Dac that gradually wins you over with its catchy momentum. The day before, taking pictures for this article at their rehearsal at Minh’s Jazz club I overheard Dac say to the rest of the band that he currently had a great reed on his soprano and in Moments you could hear it. His solo soared and swayed against the ungainly beat as if he was an alchemist at work. As intensity grew, the sound of his soprano took on an ethereal tone and for five minutes he was beautifully lost in his own world, gliding and drifting through the clouds in the upper register of the instrument which in lesser hands can sound squeaky but in his found full-bodied flight. There’s nothing quite so special as hearing and seeing a musican lost in flight.

Ending with a beautifully elegant bass led Beo Dat May Troi and then a drum feature, we were reminded how Dernevik and Aman are the quiet heroes of this band – always attentive and ready to make musical conversation, I wanted to hear more bass solos and more guitar and sax interaction with the drums to explore the light and shade.  Dac has the tendency to go into technique overdrive at the peak of his solos, running so fast he can leave others behind if unrestrained. Interestingly Nilsson, on this night at least, was the opposite and I felt that he was holding back and maybe even a bit distracted.  But if that’s how he plays when he’s not on tiptop form, look out!

I felt this was an important night for jazz in Vietnam. Helped by some of the country’s old friends, the Swedes, whose jazz heritage is bluechip, I’m excited to see this partnership deepen and bear more fruit. Quyen Thien Dac is just the right person to weave the complex threads of his vision together and his three Swedish cohorts, just the right people to be his companions.  I highly recommend their accompanying CD, A Oi.

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