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 quality?
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 record?
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 intervals?
You also play fretless guitar to get those intervals.
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 tuning.
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 attack time?
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 compression pedals.
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 more imaginative.
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 and composing?
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.