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Nguyen Le's journey into sound


Musical boxes may be restrictive, but this background is no match for Le.
  • Musical boxes may be restrictive, but this background is no match for Le.

The music industry has always tried to fit artists into easily identifiable and marketable categories, but some artists continue to reach beyond the constrictions placed on them. John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman took jazz to the streets and the stratosphere. Pop artists have dabbled, with arguably limited success, in hip-hop, dance and world music. Punk bands have gone country.

Nguyen Le, born in Paris to Vietnamese parents, fits most closely into the esoteric reaches of the jazz nexus. His eclecticism and experimentation Nguyen's instrumental arsenal includes fretless guitars, guitar synths, ebows and no shortage of effects have graced collaborations with Meshell Ndegeocello, Carla Bley and Art Lande.

It's Lande, the Boulder-based piano great who's best known for his Rubisa Patrol recordings on ECM, who set up Le's forthcoming tour and will perform duets with him onstage this coming Sunday.

"We're going to play some old tunes of our youth," says the 49-year-old Le with a chuckle, "and also some new compositions."

Playing with the jazz veteran, Le says, has opened him up to "the freedom of improvising." He expects Sunday's performances will become more expansive as they progress: "It will be clean in the beginning, but then I know that each of us have very wide ideas about soundscapes, so I'm sure I will use some crazy sound programs."

To date, Le's most widely recognized album is 2003's surprisingly inventive Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix. Ironically, says Le, he only got into Hendrix after a festival enlisted jazz artists to perform the guitar legend's music.

"I found it rang a very deep bell inside me, so I had to continue with it," says Le, who grew up mostly listening to Western classical music, a bit of jazz and, um, Deep Purple.

"These days, in listening back to the music I used to love, I have to say I'm not such a fan of 'Smoke on the Water,'" he admits. "Now I would prefer Led Zeppelin."

As stunning as his playing is, Le never took lessons. Initially playing drums with college friends, he soon fell in love with the electric guitar.

"It's funny because I'm pretty educated, but not in music," he says. "I did study philosophy and visual arts at Sorbonne University [in Paris], but at the same time, I was studying guitar all by myself."

He sounds pleased when asked about "Zafaran," a stunning duet with Tunisian singer/oud player Dhafar Youssef (on Le's 2007 Homescape album) that seems to echo the so-called "ethnic forgeries" of the German band Can.

"I used to listen to Can when I was younger, but they disappeared," he laments. "That was very interesting music, very free and very avant garde, but still pop music. That was something we could do at the time. Now it's just impossible to be free like that."

Is that because the times have changed, or because Le has?

"Well, both, of course. But I would say the music business is way more formal. I mean, every style is a little box and it's very difficult to go from one box to another."

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