I made an interview with famous guitarist Nguyên Lê after a great Saiyuki performance of him with Prabhu Edouard and Mieko Miyazaki in 16th Ankara Jazz Festival. I am grateful to the musicians and French Institute in Ankara for creating this opportunity for me.
F.E: You have played with many different artists from many different cultures and education for almost 30 years starting from Ultramarine. Which culture or musical idea affects you most all around the world?
N.L: Everything. I have of course a very important relation to Vietnamese Music because its my own roots. I had to rediscover and recreate it because I was born in Paris from Vietnamese parents. So my natural relation to Vietnam is very distant. In fact I am more French than Vietnamese. I was all grown up in France. But as an artist when I started to make my own project I wanted to focus on my own identity, which was of course Vietnamese first. There is a kind of vital, existential relation. It’s always here. Even if I don’t play Vietnamese Music, it is always inspired by Vietnam in the depths.
F.E: Is Saiyuki your most ethnic work?
N.L: It’s the most “world music” for sure. Before I had projects with Vietnamese music with singer Huong Thanh. It has kind of slow down these last years. We used to work a lot but we work less now. Saiyuki is today my most ethnic work but I'm also working more & more in Vietnam with local musicians & singers.
F.E: In one of your interview I have heard from you that fusion should be inside of a musician to play it. Considering that this fusion feeling is inside you, what is the source of this feeling?
N.L: It comes from all the different experiences I have with so many musicians and also from the love I have for other cultures. There are lots of cross-over experiences in the world. From my point of view they are not all successful. Because I don’t hear love. They are generally collage, there is no dialog, there is no integration, there is no inspiration, they are just together. This is opposite to what I am trying to do. That’s why I am talking about internal fusion.
F.E: Do you mean that 2 plus 3 should not make 5? Should it make something totally different?
N.L: Yes. Because the "plus" concept is mathematic. But it is not about art. There is no creation.
F.E: You played in different configurations such as trios, quartets or ensembles such as ACT family band. Considering that the improvisation is one of the most important aspects of jazz, in which configuration do you feel yourself more comfortable and more powerful while improvising?
N.L: Not solo! I am not comfortable while playing solo (he laughs), because one thing I always love in music is the collective & social dimension of creation. Otherwise each time it's different. I love to play in that acoustic concept of Saiyuki and I like also to play very loud & electric like in "Songs of Freedom".
F.E: For example, in last US tour you played with Rudresh Mahanthappa in addition to your trio configuration here in Ankara. Rudresh has a very characteristic and strong sound with his saxophone. What was the difference?
N.L: I love Rudresh and his playing. But to be frank, it was not the best combination. We as Saiyuki Trio, sometimes play low and sometimes play high at different times in the performance. However, he plays loud in most of the times. This is good in his own music but sometimes not with us.
F.E: You have a wide dynamic range in your sound in your performances. You have a deep groove.
N.L: Yes, that’s what we love.
F.E: That’s also what I love and why I’m here. Do you have an ultimate aim in music such as unifying the music of the world?
N.L: I think It would be a wrong idea. I prefer diversity. I prefer to have millions of different styles and different identities than only one. That’s the problem of the world. That’s not only a problem for music. Everything starts to feel the same as a result of globalization. Globalization should be done in a good way. For example this city Ankara, with its roads & buildings could be the same as Dubai or Singapore. We are doing globalization in a good way with this trio, with Mieko and Prabhu. They have their own traditions. We play together, but they stay the same. They are just getting better because of the dialog.
F.E: Should music have an aim or should it be like a river on its path?
N.L: It depends on how you define aim. For sure there is a concept, which is symbolized by the title: everything about different sides of Asia.
F.E: When did the idea Saiyuki come into your mind?
N.L: I had the idea to unite a band with virtuosos from Asia since a long time but I was looking for the right musicians. I was working about Vietnamese Music with the singer Huong Thanh. She is great but as a pure traditional singer she has some limits. At some point I wanted to meet virtuosos like Mieko and Prabhu who can play everything. It is not only about talent, it is about education. So I met Prabhu in Portugal. We were both invited to Portugal for a conceptual concert. I met Mieko in Paris in 2007. There was a guy who was a fan of Japanese Jazz. He wanted to promote everything about Japanese Jazz. He asked me to meet Japanese Musicians and I told him that I want to meet traditional Japanese Musicians. When I met Prabhu, I asked him whether he wanted to play together. We recorded a demo in a musical meeting and then presented the record to the label.
F.E: You are one of the most important ACT musicians in my opinion. Where is your sound located in the wide spectrum of ACT? Is it world music or spread on the spectrum?
N.L: Don’t ask me (he laughs), you answer.
F.E: If there wouldn’t be any albums in which you have not worked with Scandinavians I might have excluded this side but you have many albums with them. Then I can say you are spread on the spectrum.
N.L: I have recorded for Caecilie Norby’s album lately with Lars Danielsson, Robert Mehmet İkiz and Leszek Mozdzer.
F.E: That should certainly be a great album. You have a great album called Purple which has successful sales figures. This album is dedicated to Jimi Hendrix. What is the link between you and Jimi Hendrix?
N.L: Everybody thinks I was born with Hendrix in me. It is wrong. I met Hendrix’s music pretty late, when I was already a jazz musician. It was 1983 when I am invited to a tribute festival in France whose concept was Jimi Hendrix’s music. Then I started to work on music of Hendrix. This was the first period. We were so happy with playing this music. The beginning was only a gig. Then we decided to continue with the musicians.
F.E: Was it the first time that you were with rock?
N.L: First time to play rock songs. Before I played jazz, I have played improvisational progressive rock, very improvised, not "songs".
F.E: What about the second period with Jimi Hendrix?
N.L: The second period started with the record in 2000. I met Terri Lyne Carrington and I did this record. Terri is very important. We started a quartet. That was a little bit different.
F.E: How do you see the relationship between Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, considering the style of Miles Davis after 70's, especially with Bitches Brew?
N.L: Oh, Yes. Miles, he not only loves the music of Jimi Hendrix but also his symbol and the symbol was also the black music who had success on all white people. Miles was dreaming of such success.
F.E: Do you mean, he was trying to attract people?
N.L: Yes he was trying to be a popular jazz musician. Of course there is the music. But it is not only about music.
F.E: What do you remember from your works İslam Blues and Bakida with Turkish musician Kudsi Ergüner?
N.L: Very inspiring. I am a fan of him for long time even before knowing him. I love the Ney very much. I love also Turkish Clarinet player, Hüsnü Şenlendirici. He is a pop star in Turkey.
F.E: Yes, Hüsnü has played with Dhafer Youssef in last North Sea Jazz Festival as well as in İstanbul Jazz Festival.
N.L: Yes, I know it. I was also there at North Sea, playing with Mendoza.
F.E: What is the first thing that emerges in your mind when I tell you Turkish music?
N.L: It’s Kudsi’s music, sure (he laughs)
F.E: Is there any other Turkish musicians that you have heard listened or worked together?
N.L: I know about a traditional musician playing with Kudsi, Derya Türkan, the kemenche player. He also recorded with Renaud Garcia Fons. There is also the darbouka player Burhan Öcal. And Okay Temiz, I think, the percussionist. I also know about Erkan Oğur at fretless guitar. I love Turkish music. I am a big fan. It is very inspiring for me. Turkey is a great symbol for what traditional music is and how traditional music can live today. It’s still very respected. You can learn it at school. Traditional musicians read solfege. That's the good part of western in musical education.
F.E: You can find the west and east together in Turkey.
N.L: Yes, you take the good side of everything and you still stay the same.
F.E: What is the story about Topkapı Piece in the album Songs of Freedom?
N.L: Each song is rearranged from an ethnic point of view. Sunshine of your love is rearranged from a North African point of view. Come Together from Beatles is rearranged from a Turkish point of view. I wanted to have just my own little space, just myself more relating to my arrangement than to the pop song . So I created those little intros before each song. I played Topkapi on a small detuned 12 string acoustic guitar, with the idea of playing a kind of saz.
F.E: Have you ever visited Topkapı Palace?
N.L: No. Just from pictures. (He laughs)
F.E: Thanks for the great performance today and creating this opportunity for me to make this interview.