Paul Zetter – Jazz Trio Review

Paul Zetter – Jazz Trio Review

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Paul Zetter

the trio in full flow
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You must believe in Nguyen Tuan Nam – our jazz reviewer finds himself skipping down sand dunes and walking up some hills at the recent Spring jazz piano trio concert at the Opera House. Walking into the Hanoi Opera House and seeing the stage set with the classic trio configuration, from left to right, piano, double bass, drums gave me a sense of coming home. When three be-suited young gentlemen took their places on the stage without any redundant speech making and counted in the first number I felt a sense of being in the right place at the right time.

The jazz trio comes to the Big Theatre.
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Nguyen Tuan Nam and his trio, Dao Minh Pha, double bass and Nguyen Hung Cuong, drums are the new face of Vietnamese jazz, building on the foundations rendered by the likes of Quyen Van Minh, his son Dac and Tran Manh Tuan, but instead of their saxophones, the piano is now ascendant. Carefully introducing each number and treating the repertoire with the reverence it deserved, Nam is the friendly, engaging face of the new Vietnamese jazz. By choosing a challenging set of contemporary jazz originals, a few lesser know standards and an original, the trio took a big risk in terms of song selection and accessibility. Throughout the evening there were glimpses of the potential of this band to plough a new furrow of thoughtful, swinging contemporary piano jazz for audiences in Hanoi.

Nam introduces the next piece whilst resting his fingers
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Opening with a jaunty and soulful rendition of Nat Adderley’s, The Old Country, Nam’s light, understated touch with the melody was a clear invitation to the audience intended to engage not alienate. As his solo gathered steam it became clear that he has a quite phenomenal right hand technique. His complex runs build until you think his fingers are just about to tie themselves in knots and then he miraculously finds an invisible sixth and seventh digit to complete the phrase. Listening to him is a bit like running down a sand dune – a wonderful feeling of release and momentum as the sand falls away under your feet. But lightness can lead to brittleness and a strong right hand can overshadow the left. In the next number, the romantic Brodszky/Cahn ballad, Be My Love, the trio lost a bit of their opening confidence as the slow tempo caught them napping – I think it was Dexter Gordon who used to say that ballads are the hardest of all jazz forms to play as the ability to mix control and irreverence is rare.

Pha playing up the 'dusty end'
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Things picked up with the crisply played Keith Jarrett song, So Tender, where drummer Cuong began to make his presence felt with one of the finest sounding drum kits and set of cymbals I’ve heard in Vietnam. He is a hugely talented and thoughtful drummer, constantly pushing the beat whilst laying down a wash of cymbal accents and shimmers. He’s busy but to the point and unlike many locally grown drummers I’ve heard over the years, he maintains his focus and concentration as the momentum builds and can create silence and space when he needs to.

Cuong excelling on one of the finest sounding drum kits I've heard in Vietnam
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Next, the out of tune Opera House Steinway (please can someone tune that piano) did Nam no favours in Sam Rivers’ beautifully limpid, Beatrice. Bassist Pha also got fairly off pitch as if in sympathy with the piano. Being a bit lost in the sound mix didn’t help either. But Nam pulled it together with an exploratory solo where once again his right hand shined. Like so many musicians who have a great talent, the gift can also be a weakness. Nam can over rely on those blinding runs, his left hand reduced to support act. From middle C upwards Nam excels but he sometimes lacks muscle and imagination in the bass register.

Confidence was rebuilt with a stirring version of Pat Metheny’s gospel flavoured, James, and Pha also straightened his back and got gutsy. Cuong locked the trio into the beat with his wash of cymbals and bass drum accents and things swinged. Then, in the coda, in a few throw away bars, a real moment of communication between the three shone a light under the door as Cuong mirrored Nam’s arpeggio ending and the bass nailed the off beats with precision – beautifully done – more of that please! Next, Cuong and Pha left the stage for Nam’s solo of his own composition, First Time After Time. It was a slow, soulful melody played on top of a shifting almost angular harmonic sequence that drew the audience in to Nam’s internal world. His meditation and concentration delighted me. To play so quietly, so intimately, in such a revered space takes a brave but tender soul indeed. In the shadows of the piece I heard the Dan Tranh and Dan Bau echoing another world beyond jazz.

The trenchant, Searching Finding, from the pen of master bassist John Pattitucci came next and saw the trio explore more freer, modal forms in which drummer Cuong once again excelled. I can see he is going to be a regular hire for any visiting jazz group in the future – he’s got that concert hall sound and knows how to make textures not just rhythms. He sometimes reminded me of Jack DeJohnette playing with Keith Jarrett. Nam showed that he does have a left hand after all as he planted some McCoy Tyner style fifths which Cuong responded to and Pha mirrored.

The title of the next piece and the concert itself was, You Must Believe in Spring, a stunningly beautiful minor key ballad about the sometimes bittersweet transition from winter to spring made famous by Barbra Streisand and Bill Evans on his classic 1977 album of the same name. This is a very difficult ballad to play and as with the earlier ballad, Be My Love, the trio struggled. I love the way Nam and his trio take risks with repertoire and exposition but here the arrangement was ill conceived. Leaving Pha to play the whole melody and bridge unaccompanied did not sustain interest and when piano and drums eventually joined him, they all plodded up a steep hill and only just reached the top when Nam wisely brought it to an early close.

A stirring medley of Kenny Barron’s complex, Sunshower, and Pat Metheny’s cheerful, The Chief, saw the trio trying to rebuild some of the lost momentum which they almost achieved with an encore of the Charlie Parker up tempo blues, Billie’s Bounce, which had Nam’s fleet fingers once again blurring in the reflection of the jet black Steinway.

It’s rare to see young artists taking risks in such a prestigious venue and with new repertoire. I greatly respect the courage of this trio and how they’re bringing polished, well played trio music to audiences here. Cuong is an exceptional new talent on the drums who could afford to let go of his tight grip on the pulse a bit more. Pha’s lack of fear to solo in the upper register of the bass points to a talent soon to blossom when his pitch gets more accurate. Nam and his trio are a breath of fresh air which, like an early spring breeze, makes you look up after winter’s chill and listen to the sounds and colours of the new season.

Review of Bill Evans’ classic album You Must Believe in Spring. One of my all time favourites.

Photos by Pham Hoang Mien.

To read Paul Zetter’s review of Nguyen Tuan Nam and his band before the show, visit Hanoigrapevine’s previous post.

Paul Zetter is an accomplished jazz musician, knowledgable fan and enthusiastic writer and reviewer. He also writes his own blog dedicated to reviews of jazz piano trios. Read more of his writing and listen to him perform some of his own original music on the piano.

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