ELB - Peter Erskine/Nguyen Le/Michel Benita

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ELB - Peter Erskine/Nguyen Le/Michel Benita
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ELB - Peter Erskine/Nguyen Le/Michel Benita

J. Dennis "Longboard jazzer"
No one plays the guitar like Nguyen Le. What he sounds like to me is if one crossed the late, great Shawn Lane with Noel Akchote. I also hear a good bit of Nels Cline, something of Ben Monder, a bit of Amit Chatterjee, a soucon of Pat Metheny, and even the occasional Bill Frisell move. But in the last analysis, he's entirely his own man, and over the course of about 15 years of public performance he has developed a unique concept and voice. One thing that immediately sets him apart is a wonderful and mysterious oriental-sounding approach he often deploys, especially on his own tunes ("ZigZag," "Pong," "Sao Sen," and "Bee"), often combined with a prog-rock feel. Possessed of huge and uncanny technique (check out his tweaked harmonics on "Autumn Rose"), he has honed his chops to the point that there seems to be little he can't do.

I have four other discs by him as leader, but this one strikes me as by far his best, certainly a distinct move forward. Perhaps he's finally settled on his ultimate band; perhaps all those years performing and woodshedding have just enabled him to reach critical mass (similar to what has happened to Eric Alexander on Nightlife in Tokyo, the brilliant sax player's latest disc); I don't know.

But I do know something special is going down here. Actually, this isn't really Le's band; it's a guitar trio functioning as a complete democracy–which is entirely appropriate, given the three players' levels of accomplishment. Of the eleven tracks, Le wrote four, Peter Erskine (drums) wrote four, and Michel Benita (double-bass) wrote three. These are formidable musicians, each with vita that ranks them among the top echelon of players of their instrument. Each also displays a distinct and powerful musical personality, generally equal to Le's own amazingly strong and defined style. Still, it's hard for me to think of this as anything but Le's gig. I guess it's the uniqueness of his concept, the breadth of his tonal palette, and the intrigue and scope of his songs that make me think of it as his gig. His being the single lead instrument, at least in any traditional sense of the word, also tends to vault him onto center stage.

On the other hand, there's a real sense in which this trio is an entirely democratic endeavor. In a way not that dissimilar from the Bad Plus's approach, where a true democracy of intent and execution prevails, up to and including how the instruments are imagined and placed within the sound signature, this band goes for and achieves something comparable. Erskine, a drummer with a background that could hardly be more different than David King's (drummer for the Bad Plus), nevertheless manages to insert himself and his playing as aggressively into the sound mix as the latter. And Michel Benita has a huge bass sound, not unlike that of Reid Anderson (bassist for the Bad Plus), although, again, he sounds little like Anderson.

Recorded and engineered by Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studios, Oslo, gives it the ECM-like clarity of presentation. And although Kongshaug's no Tchad Blake, he nevertheless achieves a sound signature that's every bit as distinctive and attractive as what Blake did for the Bad Plus, both in These Are the Vistas and Give.

In any case, this is a band to be reckoned with. And a recording of the highest distinction.

1. Zigzag
2. Autumn Rose
3. Pong
4. Country Boy
5. Now Or Never
6. Sao Sen
7. Pirates
8. Meanwhile
9. Bee
10. Bass Desires
11. Free At Last

Personnel: Peter Erskine (drums); Nguyen Le (guitar); Michel Benita (bass). Recorded at Rainbow Studios, Oslo, Norway on October 30 & 31, 2000. Live Recording.