French guitarist and composer Nguyên Lê is arguably the most
potent creative force in the rapidly evolving world-jazz-fusion movement. Born of
Vietnamese parentage and raised in the international musical mecca of Paris, Lê has
released 12 unique albums since 1989, including works that explore and integrate
various world music traditions (Vietnamese, Japanese, Algerian, Turkish, Indian,
Caribbean, etc.) with American and European music, and 2002’s genre-warping
Hendrix tribute Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix. Lê’s recordings and touring bands
have featured scores of internationally acclaimed jazz and traditional artists, and
his playing graces some 40 albums in addition to his own releases. He has received
numerous awards, and his “Ting Ning” was one of only a handful of songs recorded
in the new millenium to be included in the 6-CD Jazz: the Smithsonian Anthology box
set—and the only one by a guitarist.
Lê’s playing assumes different guises depending on context, be it mimicking
the subtle microtonal bends and ornamentation common to Vietnamese and Japanese
music, executing Indian-style glissandos, or navigating polyrhythmic African
figures and arpeggios—all integrated within a framework of traditional jazz
harmony and, when appropriate, delivered with the shamanic intensity of an acidcrazed
’60s-era guitar god.
Following the success of Purple, ACT Music asked Lê to do a second album of
Hendrix covers, but ultimately he decided to take a related but different course.
“I hate to repeat myself, so I suggested doing other music from the ’60s and ’70s
that was mythic for me when I was young, rather than limiting myself to Hendrix,”
explains Lê. “I can even say that those songs made me love music, because before
that there was only my parents’ music, which was also a big influence, but a passive
one, because that is music that you hear but don’t actually listen to.”
For Songs of Freedom, Lê chose classics by artists such the Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin,
and Iron Butterfly—including a tabla-driven version of “Whole Lotta Love” in
37/8 and a semi-classical version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in 17/8—and composed
several original interludes based on them. “The interludes serve as introductions to
the main songs, and are very much related
to them,” he explains. “For example, ‘Uncle
Ho’s Benz’ introduces ‘Mercedes Benz,’
and emphasizes the idea of a Vietnamese
arrangement of the Janis Joplin tune.” Lê
also notes the songs’ universality. “These
songs established pop culture and are so
mythical that they now belong to everyone
on this planet,” he says. “They have become
world music in the sense of a music that
the world listens to.”
Do you consider yourself to be a jazz musician?
Yes, I define myself as a jazz musician
because jazz is the style and language that
I have chosen to express myself. I went
through the process of learning all the basics
of jazz, the Real Book standards, etc. At the
same time, I am aware that the music I am
doing sometimes doesn’t sound like jazz—
but it is jazz from the inside.
You have said that you were already playing
like Jimi Hendrix before you heard his music.
What did you mean by that?
I know that it can sound immodest to
say that [laughs]. But I was talking about
the energy and the attitude that is involved
when I play. Because the way I learned
to play the guitar wasn’t about learning
songs or chords, it was by improvising,
which was kind of a trance process—
and I’ve tried to keep that trance quality
in every one of my musical experiences.
Then, when I discovered Hendrix, I found
that there was the same kind of energy,
and that dimension of forgetting who you
are. In the best moments when playing
music, you forget about yourself and you
feel that you are the messenger for something
that is beyond.
How might one cultivate that trance-like
It’s not possible to cultivate that. It’s
maybe just trying to be aware that it is
something you have inside, and that you
have to remember it, even if the situation
asks for something different. For example,
the music on my latest album is very
much written and arranged, so there was
lots of brainwork involved in playing it. At
the same time, when we started to improvise,
I really wanted to keep a very live
and trance-like energy. When you feel it’s
there you try to dive into it, but there’s not
much that you can practice to make it more
usual. In fact, it cannot be usual. It doesn’t
happen all the time.
What were your primary guitars on the new
I mostly played the Julien Gendre Tao
guitar, which I’ve had for about six years.
It is a 24-fret thinline with a very special
shape inspired by Chinese calligraphy and
painted with China ink. But since I was
looking for more of a vintage sound for this
album, I also played a Nash Relic Stratocaster-
style guitar, which I love. I waited
years to come back to a simpler guitar.
But while it is simpler, at the same time it
reacts more directly, and you really have
to play with the Volume and Tone controls.
Because the Tao has EMG pickups I
always have the controls up full, but with
the Nash you have to modulate wisely. I’m
rediscovering Jeff Beck because of that, as
he is really a master of those things. I also
used a fretless guitar on the intro to “Black
Dog” and a prepared Vietnamese acoustic
on “Over the Rainforest.” That song is
the introduction to “Move Over,” and the
relation between those two tunes is the
very strange guitar sound. It is played on
a Vietnamese Cai Luong acoustic, which
has heavily scalloped frets, and is built to
play traditional South Vietnamese theater
music. But I play it like a Western guitar,
and for that intro I wanted it to sound like
an African instrument, so I put pieces of
paper between the strings and used a righthand
tapping technique. I love the sound
because it is very acoustic, and at the same
time you cannot tell what it is.
The scallops allow you to get microtonal
You also play fretless guitar to get those
Yes, and I love fretless—but I’m actually
more interested in trying to create the
sound of fretless on a normal guitar. It’s all
about left-hand bends, special ornaments,
the whammy bar, and also the slide. I’ve
worked a lot on emulating Indian sounds,
especially those made by the sitar and the
mandolin. A big part of the Indian sound is
glissandos—very long and complex phrases
played on only one string.
You keep the whammy bar in your hand
almost constantly, and use it in a very flowing
way. Describe its role in your playing.
The whammy bar has become a huge part
of my sound. It really makes every note sing.
Additionally, in traditional Vietnamese music
there is a science of subtle ornamentations.
There’s the attack of the note, and then as
the note is sustaining they do lots of subtle
ornaments while the note is dying out. For
me, the whammy bar exists to do that.
You prefer the Floyd Rose. Why?
It’s so perfect, like Swiss machinery. You
can do everything from seconds and thirds
to dive bombing and it always comes right
back into tune. Also, unlike vintage-style
whammy bars, it is quite easy to replace a
broken string while performing live.
Do you ever play in non-standard tunings?
No, everything I play is in standard
Is the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx your primary
amplifier these days?
Yes, I’ve had it for about a year. Sometimes
I still have to struggle, because you
can go very deep into creating sounds, but
at the same time it is a dream come true,
and I love it. I’m always looking for lots of
different sounds—for example, I use different
types of compression for every program—
but I need to have instant access
to them. I still enjoy playing with pedals,
but I’m always frustrated when using them
because it is impossible to easily change to
entirely different sounds. Songs of Freedom
was all done with the Axe-Fx, though sometimes
I added a Blackstar HT Boost tube
booster just to add more dirt and warmth.
And while mixing I always rework the guitar
sounds with additional processing.
How were the guitar tracks recorded?
I recorded four guitar tracks: A stereo pair
from the Axe-Fx, a Fender Supersonic amp
miked with a Royer R-121, and a DI track
split off before the Axe-Fx for re-amping. I
only used the DI track on “Mercedes Benz,”
and the Fender was only used to add a little
real amp warmth to the blend.
What effects would you say are most critical
to achieving your tones?
Compression is very important, and I have
lots of different types of compressors. Which
one I use depends on the style of the sound,
whether it is clean or dirty, and whether it
requires a fast or slow attack. For rhythm, I
need a very strong and clear attack, so I set
a slow attack time on the compressor. For a
singing solo tone, even if it’s clean, I use a
faster attack time on the compressor.
You used a relatively clean tone with lots of
sustain for the solo on “Redemption Song.” Is
that an example of compression with a faster
Yes, exactly. The idea is to have the most
sustain possible, but without the sound being
very distorted. The little distortion that is
there is only to increase sustain. I got the tone
on that particular solo using the Empirical
Labs FATSO hardware compressor. I could
not get that sound with the Axe-Fx or with
Another important effect for me is delay.
For example, the sound at the beginning of
“Pastime Paradise” is a simple part created
by playing just a few notes with a very clean
sound, but using a delay in the Axe-Fx. I
like delay to be lively, so I always add modulation
to make the pitch of the repeated
notes a little wobbly. The Axe-Fx also has a
feature called Diffusion that adds more and
more reverb on every repeat, making each
one more distant sounding.
When arranging the tunes on Songs of Freedom,
how necessary did you feel it was to retain
core elements of the originals?
I took the same approach that I took when
I was working on traditional Vietnamese,
Arabic, or African music. It always starts with
love and respect for the original tune. Then,
for me, each tune is kind of asking, “What
will be your turn with this music?” So, my
arrangement is an answer to that question,
and it is always deeply rooted in the original.
The ideas already exist, and I just develop
them using my imagination.
Take “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for example.
This tune has a neo-classical organ
intro, and that gave me the idea to write
this semi-classical counterpoint, based on
Bach, for the bass line and the melody. I kept
the original melody, except that I added one
beat so it’s 17 beats. It’s the same shape—
it’s just a little bit stretched [laughs]. Also,
on the original there’s a one-bar interlude
that sounds very oriental and typical of the
psychedelic music of that era, so I just took
that phrase and extended it into something
What is going on rhythmically in your arrangement
of “Whole Lotta Love”?
Again, I wanted to keep the original
theme, which is the basic riff in E—but in
my arrangement, those Es after the first few
notes are very much displaced. I think it’s
37 beats: two bars of 5/4, one in 9/8, and
one in 4/4. But when you learn the tune you
don’t think about the beats. You have to integrate
the rhythm into your body, and then it
is more about rhythmic cells that you join
together into a big groove. John Paul Jones
once said he wrote the main riff in “Black
Dog” so people couldn’t dance to it, which
is very funny, and I liked that idea. I wanted
to keep the energy of the low riff in “Whole
Lotta Love,” but at the same time deconstruct
the rhythm so that the listener would
not know where to go.
You mentioned “Black Dog.” Taking that as an
example, step us through the arranging process.
I kept the original riff, but transferred it
to another scale, which is kind of an Indian
scale: E, G, Bb, B, C, Eb. There’s a minor third,
a flat five, natural five, flat six, and a major
seventh. “Black Dog” fits very well with this
scale, as it is only one semi-tone different. It
has changed, but you can still easily recognize
that it is the same shape. So, that’s the
harmony/melody part. For the guitar solo,
I wanted something more concrete than the
original, so I wrote something in 11, based
on that scale. Then, Tunisian vocalist Dhafer
Youssef pushed the existing idea to the reality
of today’s world, which is the awakening
of all of the music from all countries. He has
the facility to sing highs with great energy,
like Robert Plant, except that the sound he
delivers brings that energy to a mythical and
more oriental place.
Speaking of the blending of music, Paris is
home to musicians from Europe, Asia, Africa, the
Middle East, and every other part of the world.
How did that polyglot culture shape your playing
I was always fascinated by other cultures.
I was born in Paris, from Vietnamese parents,
so I am more French than Vietnamese, and
I lost the Vietnamese language very early.
Some time after becoming a jazz musician, I
became aware that I needed to return to my
roots to find my own artistic identity. I started
to work on playing Vietnamese music, and
in 1996 I did a project called Tales from Vietnam,
which was a big step for me, because
that was the first time that I really worked
with traditional musicians. It’s fine to surf
the Internet, transcribe records, and read
books—but nothing can replace the experience
of playing with musicians within a
particular tradition. Similarly, Algerian drummer
Karim Ziad taught me so much about
rhythm, especially rhythms that when you
listen to them with a Western ear, you are
completely lost. You have to sort of become
Algerian to understand them. You have to
immerse yourself in that musical culture. It
not only has to do with going to some exotic
country, it’s starting to become somebody
from that country.