A World of Music

program for a workshop at the Jazzschool, Berkeley CA, USA

nov 22, 2010

   Nguyên Lê is a masterful, inventive player who

has cultivated a wholly unique voice on the intsrument,

he ranks right up there with Frisell, John Scofield, Mike Stern

& Allan Holdsworth in the post-Hendrix world of jazz guitar

                   Bill Milkowski, Jazztimes (USA)

As a self-taught musician, Nguyên Lê delivers a very personal approach in his pedagogic works. In this workshop he will try to transmit the ways he discovered the science of music by himself.

As a Paris-born child of vietnamese immigrants he grew up in a cross-cultural situation. Very early he became fascinated by non-western cultures which are part of Paris today’s life. These influences are essential in Nguyên Lê’s style, & he will show how to integrate the lessons of those cultures in the playing & the writing.

Usually N. Lê assumes that the students know already all the basics of jazz harmony & improvising. The idea of the clinic is to go beyond the basics, & show how the studying of traditional & non-western music can highly help to develop new & special ways of creating & thinking music. Here are some possible directions :

-Modality is a different sense of music where one has to be aware of the meaning & hierarchy of each degree of the mode. The mode is defined not only by its scale, but also by the specific ornements attached to each note. Which brings us to the essential world of ornementation :

-Vibratos (with several speeds & different triggerings), Trills, Portamentos…

-Quarter Tones

-Polymodality > Ethnic Chromaticism : Modality can be very strict, but also pretty open. Lots of oriental music uses several modes together in the same tune, or even phrase. At the end you can use all 12 notes, but in a very different way than bebop chromaticism or atonalism.

-A different sense of time : extreme slowness in Korea & Japan ; Duration & development in the indian raga ; some grooves are so particular & unquantizable that one needs to forget his usual rythmic references to start to understand something. In the 12/8 from Algeria/Morocco there is no accent on the beats, the usual relation between pitch & weight is reversed.

-Odd meters : even if they’re complex they still have to groove. Dance is always around…

-New rythmic equivalences & modulations : Morocco  7/8 = 5/4 (L’Arkha Li Jeya), Algeria 11/8 = 5/4 (Nesraf)

We’ll then apply some of these ethnic concepts to Jazz :

-Harmonizing traditional melodies ; Polytonality below a modal melody

-Harmonzing modes ; ethnic chord scales

-Orchestrating a traditional melody, putting it in a polyphonic space (The Black Horse, Ila)

-« Ethnicization » of a western tune (Hendrix’s Voodoo Child)

-Writing a theme like if you were a musician from another country

-Instrumental applications : Ethnic use of the whammy bar; the dan bau

-Using modes in a jazz improvisation & on changes.

The tunes quoted here refer to Nguyên Lê’s albums, mostly  « Tales from Viêt-Nam », « Maghreb & Friends », « Bakida », « Purple, Celebrating Jimi Hendrix », « Saiyuki ».


INTERPLAY - written in July 2009 for a workshop in Siena

Communication, Dialogue, Exchange, Give & Take, Resonate…

A Jazz performance is like a dialogue between musicians. Musical phrases are like questions & answers that follow each other. In a normal dialog you got to listen & understand the question before answering, but sometimes this process can be nearly immediate – that’s the magic of music, the miracle of empathy !

Interplay is a social relation inside a group of musicians. Social can be hierarchical (soloist/accompanist) or democratic (collective improvisation), heavily structured like a government (big band) or informal & without direction of correctness (free). Like any human relation it goes through phases of action & reaction, activity & passivity. In that way listening as well as being silent is an essential part of the interplay, like knowing when to be « modest » or « low profile », then bright & burning when it’s time. Listen to the other, listen to yourself as part of a collective sound. Play not for you (like listening to how well, or bad, you perform your own chops), but for the other musicians who are your 1rst audience. Not only to please them, but also to surprise, excite, disturb them. Often there is better music when you just don’t think about what you are playing, & when you swim in the flow of music. Your notes are part of a collective composition. When you perform, forget about yourself & the hard working musician you are. You don’t control your instrument, you’re the instrument of the voice of Music which speaks through you.

Real interplay exists with open ears & free spirit. At some point, each one can be the conductor of the band – it’s the music which will ask for that. When the improvisation gets weak or uninspired, give a new proposition like a new tempo, groove, melodic idea or tonality. Initiative is the key word.  If we’re in a band with lots of soloists, lets start each solo with a new idea, time, groove, feel, etc…

Besides the usual jazz comping, there are many ways to interact with the other musicians. Keep in mind you’re answering their questions, & that you’re supposed to elevate the dialogue !

Examples :

Shadow (delayed unison, reverbering the melody)

Shadow the rhythm with other notes

Shadow the melodic shape with other rhythms.

Interpret the rhythms : if one is playing triplets, accentuate every two note of the tuplet ( > different grouping)

Interpret the melody : play only one note instead of two, play short notes instead of long ones, play soft ones instead of loud others… comment the melody using improvised cannon, fugue, counterpoint manners.

Interpret harmony : (more usual) reharmonization/substitutions/changing root notes, (less usual) on the spot, according to the notes played by the soloist. If it’s a song with fixed chord changes, try to improvise & modify the changes at the same time as the soloist.

Stretch the form & the tempos : on a song/standard tune try to move the length of the bars according to the melodic intentions of the soloist. « Changes No Time » concept, but can be also « Stretched changes with time » > Miss One

Go with the soloist, gluing to his phrases.

Go against ! Interesting things can happen if you don’t follow the soloist & play with different/contrary register & intentions.

All these improvisational excercises/games can operate at diverse situations & textures pieces. They’re here to emulate interplay, give markers for inspiration, install challenges to favour improvistaion & creativity. Abstract contexts (no song or chord changes or fixed form) can make the work easier &/or more exciting :

Loud / Soft volume

Clean / Distorted timbres

Fast / Slow speeds (try several tempos together !)

Hi / Low registers

Long/ Short notes

Many / Few notes

Unusual sounds, noises, effects

Time no changes (classic « free » impro > Bass Desires tune

Changes no time (rubato but modulating chords > Real Time, any standard…

Changes on time but somebody’s playing out of time (especially the drummer ! > Jon Christensen on « Song One »

Explode Time while keeping pulse (1/1 beat, no obvious cycle or bar)

Responsorial form (soloist question / choir (band) answer)

Vietnamese comping : One guy (the singer) plays the normal melody of a song, while the other adds ornements to this melody (no chords) but joins the main pivot notes.

Harmony : three possible situations :

IN – follow the soloist while inventing the chords which will harmonize what he plays. Magic when it works ! Easier with slow melody & rubato.

OUT – don’t try to figure out the notes & the chords, just treat them as sounds & raw material. You’ll go into deep atonality & other aesthetic & abstract parameters will emerge, like density, energy, intensity…

BOTH – very tonal harmony with atonal melody > Ives, the unanswered question

(inverse, more usual) lullaby/folksong type melody with atonal chords

Sometimes excessive or heavy interplay is boring too ! > the bass/drum « lock » syndrome of 90’s fusion… Sometimes no interplay can be fascinating because it makes you look for other things in the music : Dhafer’s story with Jon Hassell, Nick Bartsch’s Ronin, Charles Ives, Phil Glass, Sampling…

> Juxtaposition of foreign elements, Surrealism, Panorama, Anachronism…

Best music is always related to deepest confidence & great intensity. Try all situations with maximum freedom & no fear of mistake. Instead of tonal rightness & perfect technique look for truth of emotion.

Nguyên Lê,

some elements merging with some ideas from Art Lande & Kenny Werner