An adventurous, genre-bending guitarist, France's Nguyên Lê emerged in the 1980s playing an expansive brand of improvisational music heavily steeped in jazz, fusion, and funk, as well as ambient new age and various ethnic traditions from around the globe. His early albums with his band Ultramarine caught the attention of the international jazz community, as did his 1990 debut, Miracles, alongside pianist Art Lande, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Marc Johnson. While probing, electric, and electronic-accented jazz is his mainstay, he has explored varied sounds -- from his own Vietnamese roots on Tales from Viet-Nam to African and Middle Eastern sounds on Maghreb & Friends. He has also paid homage to his more rock-oriented influences, issuing 2003's Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix and the 2015 Pink Floyd tribute album Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon. A star in Europe, Lê has found enthusiastic support around the world, working with such like-minded contemporaries as trumpeter Paolo Fresu, reed player Michel Portal, Vietnamese vocalist Huong Thanh, and others.
Born in 1959 in Paris to Vietnamese parents, Nguyên Lê played drums in his teens, and later switched to bass and then guitar. While largely self-taught, he progressed quickly and by college was expanding into jazz, rock, and ambient musical styles, working with electronics and programming. He initially studied both visual arts and philosophy (authoring his thesis on Exoticism) before dedicating himself to music. In the early '80s, he formed the multi-ethnic ensemble Ultramarine, and released several highly regarded genre-bending albums including 1985's Programme Jungle and 1989's Dé. He also joined France's Orchestre National de Jazz, with which he recorded albums like Orchestra '87 and Lunik II, and worked with a bevy of luminaries like Carla Bley, Didier Lockwood, Louis Sclavis, Steve Lacy, and others.
In 1990, Lê launched his solo career, traveling to the United States to record his debut album Miracles with pianist Art Lande, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Marc Johnson. Zanzibar appeared two years later with saxophonist Paul McCandless and drummer Joël Allouche, followed by the 1995 trio effort Million Waves, with bassist Dieter Ilg and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Each album found him expanding upon his diverse aesthetic, weaving jazz, world music, rock, and new age into a vibrantly unified sound. Also in the '90s, he worked regularly with Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band, and contributed to albums with such luminaries as Michel Portal, Trilok Gurtu, Ornette Coleman, and more.
He also formed a lasting friendship with trumpeter Paolo Fresu, often joining his quartet. He was also a member of the trio E-L-B with drummer Erskine and bass player Michel Bénita. In 1996, he explored his Vietnamese roots with Tales from Viet-Nam, featuring singer Huong Thanh, Fresu, Gurtu, Benita, and others. Three Trios appeared a year later, followed by 1998's Maghreb & Friends, in which he explored African and Middle Eastern traditions with guests like Karim Ziad, Bojan Zulfikarpasic, Michel Alibo, and others. He paired again with Thanh for 1999's Moon and Wind. On the heels of that album's release, he was nominated for the Victoires de la Musique award.
Lê continued his genre-crossing experiments in the 2000s, bringing together a bevy of jazz stars including Chris Potter, Fresu, and Jon Balke for 2000's Bakida. The rock-inspired tribute album Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix appeared in 2002. He returned to his work with longtime associates Paul McCandless and Art Lande on 2005's Walking on the Tiger's Tail, and delivered a series of duo performances with Fresu and Dhafer Youssef on 2006's Homescape. That same year, he was awarded the Django d'Or. He reunited with Thanh for 2007's lyrical Fragile Beauty, and appeared on keyboardist Uri Caine's The Classical Variations in 2008. He then joined Mieko Miyazaki, Prabhu Edouard, and Hariprasad Chaurasia for 2010's Saiyuki.
For 2011's Songs of Freedom, Lê interpreted songs with themes of unity and love, including compositions by Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and others. Also in 2011, he was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts & des Lettres by French Cultural minister and received the Django Reinhardt prize from the French Academie du Jazz. 2012's Urban Folktales showcased the guitarist alongside Theo Bleckmann and the Jazz Bigband Graz. He joined the NDR Bigband for the 2015 Pink Floyd tribute album Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon. That same year, he was nominated alongside Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell for Germany's Echo Jazz Award. In 2017, he collaborated with Vietnamese fiddle and lute player Ngô Hồng Quang on Hà Nội Duo, which also featured contributions from trumpeter Fresu. In 2019, Lê released Overseas, the soundtrack to an interdisciplinary performance project. A collaboration with director/choreographer Tuan Le and the dance and acrobatics ensemble Cirque-Nouveau, the album found Lê mixing jazz, hip-hop, and traditional Vietnamese music.
© Matt Collar /TiVo