Striving for imperfection

Striving for imperfection

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Written by Paul Zetter for Hanoi Grapevine
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As jazz saxophonist Nguyễn Bảo Long’s Jump For Jazz residency at Nguyễn Quí Đức’s Tadioto this August comes to end, audiences will know something special went down on Tông Đản street, Hanoi.

Long is one of Vietnam’s leading saxophonists who embraces the true spirit of jazz – it is a spirit born and nurtured by thousands of hours of practice, endless listening to your musical heroes, (I suspect Long knows John Coltrane’s repertoire inside out) and when all the work is done, a hunger to communicate the deepest secrets and imperfections of your own soul to an audience receptive enough to explore them with you. This was the scene set by Đức and Long at Tadioto this summer – a tonic to help us cope in these dark times. A month long feature of an important Vietnamese musician with an accompanying attention to detail from Tadioto like printed performance specific programmes, social media invites, special guests, a high end sound system and table reservations (oh, and occasional complimentary sushi!).

Long introduced us to Jump for Jazz a few years back. A non site-specific music promotion idea of bringing jazz to new audiences under his artistic direction, it is a valuable concept for developing the Vietnamese jazz audience. The exciting Jump for Jazz band accompanying him at Tadioto were Thế Anh, piano, Toàn Thắng, double bass and Hoàng Hà, drums. Thắng and Hà do their job of constantly driving the momentum forward with deep focus and concentration. Thế Anh especially, shows great flare in improvising a singing right hand line with a cohesive left hand underpinning the harmony and rhythm. As a one time student of my favourite Vietnamese jazz pianist, Nguyễn Mạnh, Head of the Jazz Department at the Vietnamese National Academy of music, I’m not surprised and I have great optimism for Thế Anh to become a new significant piano voice in the Vietnamese jazz scene.

Let’s not forget that Long also performed the six Cello suites as part of the Tadioto residency – a re-minder not only of his musical outlook but of the importance of featuring artists over a series of con-certs, giving audiences time and insight to discover an artist of significance like the national treasure that is Nguyễn Bảo Long.

I’m lucky to be old enough to have seen many of the great jazz musicians in person and up close at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London in my teens. When Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Art Blakey played there, what struck me wasn’t just their musicianship (although it was always unquestionably high) but their compulsion to reach depths and heights of self expression using the whole of their human being. This is nearing the true meaning of the word ‘Jazz’ – it’s a whole body experience where perfection is imperfection, where ugliness is beauty, where new is old, when chaos is made sublime, when a dead end leads to a new path, when failure to reach a high note, as long as it was striven for, can be a success, even the zenith, of a performance. It is these contradictions laid bare on the stage that make jazz so exciting, so life affirming and it all happened at Tadioto last month.

Through his musical journey, and I suspect it wasn’t an easy one – it never is if you choose jazz – Long has worked tirelessly to find his own voice and inner beauty and that journey is now bearing fruit. Listening to his solos in songs such as Coltrane’s, Naima, or his self-penned, Heartbeat, you are aware of him layering notes as if filtering the best ones for deeper exploration. Fragments of arpeggios then become ideas, ideas become sketches, sketches then become rendered in colour. And suddenly, as if frustrated by his own self-imposed symmetry, he leaves the page with flurries of staccato notes to find release from constraint. As the climactic final notes spill out of the bell of his horn, with the stress on the reed from his embouchure palpable, they come are from a deeper place than mere musical talent. It’s visceral, imperfect beauty demonstrating a fundamental understanding of the well worn phrase – ‘end on a high note’. Like a Kintsugi craftsman, Long does not disguise imperfection but instead embraces and integrates the cracks, the chips and the fault lines into his story in the quest for some kind of universal truth.

Over the years I’ve noticed Long’s burnished sax tone shift from urbane and polished to angled and vulnerable. Like the other great Vietnamese contemporary jazz saxophonist, Quyền Thiện Đắc, he is leaving behind the last vestiges of John Coltrane and finding his own voice. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending – for all of us in whatever field, this quest is a lifelong journey – in jazz where the he-roes’ voices (think Parker, Coltrane, Coleman, Evans, etc) are so pervasive, it’s especially difficult.

When I go to my father’s local Jazz club, the renown Watermill in quaint rural Surrey, England, I’m usually the youngest one in the audience. But in Vietnam, whether it be at Bình Minh’s Jazz Club or Tadioto, I’m usually amongst the oldest. This fills me with optimism and hope for the future of Vietnamese jazz. As a musical genre always in need of a life support system, great musicians, young audiences, enlightened venue owners and quality jazz music educators, will provide the oxygen needed to keep it alive. In this journey in Vietnam I thank Nguyễn Bảo Long, his Jump for Jazz band, Nguyễn Quí Đức, his attentive staff at Tadioto, the sound engineer, all the jazz teachers and all the audiences who came to appreciate such a significant happening, for showing us a meaningful roadmap.

And returning to the teenager sitting in the front row at Ronnie Scott’s, I learnt what is for me jazz’s most important lesson. It is the idea that as a jazz musician, to honour the jazz tradition and your own passion, you must bring everything you have to the stage and leave it all there in all its vulnerability. Every note inside you in that moment needs to be played, and not saved in reserve. Seeing Long perform at Tadioto, I felt like I was seventeen once more.


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