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Paul Zetter – Flashes of Brilliance

July 18, 2011

News 87

Our jazz reviewer had a lot to think about after seeing the recent Birthday Jazz Concert at the Opera House.

As the opening chords from Nguyen Tien Manh’s tender piano introduction to My One And Only Love gently resonated through the Opera House it was clear this was going to be a heartfelt birthday celebration for Quyen Van Minh by his son, Quyen Thien Dac.

Playing alto, his father’s chosen saxophone, Dac gave a sentimental rendition of the standard with minimal improvisation but lots of feeling. Archive film of Minh playing in his early years projected onto a backdrop screen created a moving insight – like father like son.

This was a concert designed to celebrate both his father’s favourite jazz standards and showcase his father’s Vietnamese music inspired compositions.

Manh reminded us that he understands space and time as his fingers caressed the keys in a self effacing rendition that pondered more on reflection than sentimentality.  Unfortunately this was the first and last we heard from Manh – he gave us a tantalising glimpse of a focused, measured approach that was to be missed in later parts of the concert.

Dac made a brave decision to base the rest of the concert around a piano- less, drums, bass and sax trio – brave as this format demands much skill and technique from the players to fill in the harmonic middle ground a piano or guitar might otherwise do.

The intimacy of such a minimal format can be intense in a jazz club but in the concert hall it demands more from the listener who has less acoustic diversity and less musical information to process.

The first song, If I Were A Bell, was encouraging. Adopting an almost Ben Webster- like vibrato, Dac took the number at tempo. His solo was brief and restrained  – maybe because of nerves – but nonetheless it had the musical twists and turns that are his trademark. I was reminded of the great Sonny Rollins’ piano-less recordings in the 1950s and looked forward to how Dac would explore this challenging genre.

For the next track, Let’s Fall In Love, Dac adopted an even heavier vibrato that made me wonder where the concert was going and if Dac’s real contemporary jazz voice would emerge. The song dragged as the similar textures of bass and drum dulled in the large hall but then, after the melody was restated at the end of the piece it was as if someone lit an ignition paper on Dac’s sax and he reminded the band and us what they were there for as they launched into a free jazz, honking and squeaking coda full of creativity that made me recall Archie Shepp – brilliant.

But just as the trio found momentum in these two numbers, the rhythm section of Le Quoc Hung, drums, and Vu Ngoc Ha, bass, left the stage to be replaced with another; Ha Dinh Huy, drums, and Dao Minh Pha bass. Huy is one of the few drummers in Vietnam who has the creativity and technique to make up for a missing harmony instrument and in Recardo Bossa and Work Song he did just that.

Huy’s ever smiling face also acted as a magnet for the three camera TV crew recording the show but unfortunately they were running with about one second of latency delay so the images on the large backdrop were out of sync and distracting – they need to work on that.

News 87

The arrangement of Nat Adderley’s Work Song was imaginative and original, and was one of the two songs of the night, Walking Shoes was the other, that felt like the band had worked up an arrangement beforehand to sustain interest and make a good springboard for solos. Taken at tempo, Dac was flying in his solo and we finally saw what he can do when unleashed. With a fine technique, textured tone and post-bob vocabulary he is surely at the top of the stack of Vietnamese jazz sax players. With almost six years of overseas jazz study under his belt it shows that Vietnamese players have all the potential of players in other countries when they access the right environment and education.

Moving from tenor to baritone sax as befitted the next Gerry Mulligan track, Walking Shoes, the band again sounded prepared and focused. But nothing could have prepared me for the next track, the old standard, Perdido, which was the highlight of the whole evening. Taken at a blisteringly fast tempo and preceded by Dac’s comment ‘Now we’re going to play something a little bit longer’ – he finally gave us the audience what we wanted – exciting jazz, explorative long solos and a big dose of swinging irreverence to set the hallowed hall of the Opera House alight – and they did just that. Huy’s brushes could have set a forest on fire, Pha’s bass walked with intense focus and

Dac dug deep on the cumbersome baritone making it feel as light as a penny whistle and showed us what he is capable of;  fire, intensity and great focus – it was one of the best sax solos I’ve heard in Vietnamese jazz – period.

Next up was Charlie Parker’s blues, Now’s The Time, but it suffered from another rhythm section change and delay. Two other top Vietnamese tenor players Nguyen Hung Son and Nguyen Bao Long joined the stage and I sat back ready to enjoy a great battle of the tenors…except it didn’t happen.

Both players had their wings clipped to only two solo choruses and what could have been, in true jazz tradition, a barnstorming battle of the Vietnamese tenors faltered into an unsatisfying, overly complex arrangement.

We heard excellent but ultimately frustrating glimpses of the urbane tone and lyrical depth in Long’s musical arsenal and the Arnett Cobb type honking in Son’s vocabulary but had the chance to explore neither.

After the intermission Dac continued the piano-less trio concept with his father’s suite of Vietnamese influenced songs. However, the lack of any middle harmony texture was starting to make the music sound thin. What great inputs pianist Manh could have given the pieces with his superb touch and harmonic depth. The six pieces lacked an overall story arc and concentration suffered as again rhythm sections were changed between numbers and birthday tributes interrupted the flow. We saw one moment of inspiration when sax player Long rejoined the stage for a longish solo followed by Dac who was clearly spurred on by having another soloist give voice.

Minh came on during the suite to play an unaccompanied improvised piece with his son, Dac. It was a magical moment where we could see how father Minh’s age and musical wisdom have allowed him to find economy of phrase and how much reverence Dac has for his father. A truly tender and memorable moment. When master percussionist Tran Tan Sy took centre stage for a duo with Dac sounding like John Coltrane on soprano sax, we also saw some greatness but in the context of the Suite, proceedings had already lost focus.

At the end of the evening I was left reflecting that, yes, Vietnam has amazing jazz soloists who are world class – all the ingredients for great concert hall jazz.

What’s missing though is an arranger’s or musical director’s eyes and ears to guide them as a group with a clear identity and focus that can hold its own with concentration and finely tuned arrangements from start to finish in a concert hall setting.

Just as Vietnamese contemporary art and dance need good curators and choreographers, now Vietnamese jazz needs a good Vietnamese arranger like a Gil Evans, Marty Paich, Charles Mingus or Vince Mendosa to bring together all these solo voices into one recognisable collective style of Vietnamese jazz.

Maybe the evening would have been more enjoyable with one rhythm section plus piano playing a terse, focused rendition of the Vietnamese suite in the first half followed by the straight jazz with Huy and Pha in the second. Then we could have ended with an extended tenor sax blues duel in Now’s The Time with Dac, Son and Long (and I’m sure Minh would have stepped up too) that could have swung even the most distant cobwebs in the high rafters of the Opera House. Now that would have been a birthday tribute to remember.

But I’m still very happy that in the evening before my daughter’s birth, while she was kicking away, sometimes on the beat, and my son lay half asleep on my knees straddled over two Opera House seats in row F, we heard the sounds and talents of the best of Vietnamese jazz.

Happy Birthdays!

Quyen Van Minh  11/7/54

Lola May  12/7/11

Minh’s Jazz club has moved to Quan Su Street – see their website here for more details.

Words and photographs ⓒ Paul Zetter 2011

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