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Vietnam s Emperor of Sax

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

When I was growing up in the sixties, the decade in which a great tidal wave of creativity was unleashed upon the popular music scene, Jazz had definitely lost popularity. We youngsters viewed it as something belonging to parents and other old fogeys. It belonged to the twenties-to-forties era and was now outmoded. A similar disinterest in Jazz exists among the Vietnamese; the fusion of African with European music and instruments holds no allure. Entering the scene is a Vietnamese knight in shining armour, on a crusade to establish Jazz in Vietnam. If you ever hear Mr Tran Manh Tuan play his saxophone once, you will want to hear him again. I was first mesmerised by him at last year’s Photo Awards ceremony of this magazine. I was lucky enough to be asked to interview him and listen to him play again the other day on his home turf at the Sax ‘n’ Art Jazz Club on the downtown Ho Chi Minh City boulevard of Le Loi.


Saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan

Once you pass the portals of the club, you may well ask yourself why you bought that intercontinental air ticket to come to Vietnam. You might just as well be at Ronnie Scott’s in London or at any famous jazz venue in the U.S. of A. But the folks in the audience here consist mostly of locals and you will witness Vietnamese musicians out to show you that their country can beat the Americans at more than just military strategy.
At the end of a long, fairly narrow room, there is that most un-oriental of things - a bar with bright shiny glasses hanging downward and the shelves stocked with a huge array of Western alcoholic drinks. This place is famous for its cocktails. Opposite the bar, there is a burgeoning display of Vietnamese art picturing jazz scenes. All around the club, there is hardly an empty space on the walls, which feature framed photos of famous jazz musicians: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane at Birdland, Washington Grover Jr. and Dexter Gordon, to name but a few. Also on display are some vintage saxophones (part of Tuan’s private collection, which is mentioned in the Vietnam edition of the Guinness book of records) and framed CDs. Outside, in the porch way, is a collection of photos of Mr Tuan in action and the awards he has won. The picture that will grab your attention most is of him with ex-President Bill Clinton.
The centre piece is, of course, the stage, which, when I visited, had on it the sax, a small grand piano, guitars and a percussion battery. There is a long sofa opposite, at which some of the tables are placed. You can also relax and listen at tables behind the stage and in the bar area. Furthermore, there is an upstairs gallery, adding an atmosphere not unlike the Globe Theatre. I am sure the Bard would have appreciated the music.
I interviewed Mr Tuan in the porch area, seated at table with a guest book with its comments from people all over the world and in a number of languages. Mr Tuan’s popularity was also evident in that our chat was frequently interrupted by musicians and arriving night clubbers. ‘Always great to see returning customers,’ remarked Mr Tuan. A visiting French businessman who recognised Tuan from photos also joined in or conversation. There were no communication problems, as Tuan speaks almost flawless American English with excellent stress, rhythm and intonation and no dropping of final consonants. ‘I studied and lived in the U.S. a number of years,’ he explained.
I asked Tuan about his meeting with Clinton. ‘We had a nice long chat.’ When questioned about his opinion of Bill’s saxophone playing, he rather diplomatically replied, ‘He is the best sax player of any President.’ Talk to Tuan for a minute or two, and it is clear that music is in his blood and genes. Both parents were musicians and his nine-year-old daughter already performs with him once a week. He showed me pictures of them both in action on his iPad. With her jet black hair tied ponytail just like dad, she seems to be both physically and musically a chip off the old block!
Snug on the sofa, sipping on your drink and with your own warm company would be the best way to enjoy Tuan’s music. Such is his renown that he is often away touring, even to many foreign lands. However, any night he is in town, unless he is sick, you will find him here. But you do not have to go the club and you do not even have to pay money to hear him.
Some Sunday mornings you can hear his music reverberating around Lam Son square as he takes part in a free concert on the steps of the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, sponsored by the municipality. He has made fourteen CDs, the latest of which, Butterfly Dream (Buom Mo) is in the stores. He admits CD sales are down from previous years, but he says there are still people who like to have a physical product - which, as he says, makes the presentation of a CD even more important these days, so he has the post-production done in New York. He claims to be one of the first Vietnamese artists to exploit downloading and for a few thousand dong a track, you can also buy his music that way.
With all this, you would imagine Tuan to be would be busy enough, but he also has time to impart his skills, teaching mainly at the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music. My initial contact with him yielded the text message: ‘in class, contact you later.’ He has his own recording studio where he records his own live music; purely organic music for him - no dubbing. ‘I want people to hear me as much as possible, as if they were right in front of me,’ he says. He composes music, experimenting by incorporating traditional Vietnamese music and local instruments such as the bamboo flute. I always like to be doing something different, he says. ‘You are truly a trailblazer,’ I tell him, but he responds by saying he prefers the phrase ‘game changer’. His ambition and work in progress is the establishment of his own School and Centre for Contemporary Music, for the purpose of filling a gap in the market that existing structures such as the conservatoire do not.
Mr Tuan made his polite excuses. It was nearing nine o’clock and playing was just about to begin. I moved inside, took my place and ordered a dry red wine. There was none of the stuffiness of going to the opera. Most of my fellow music lovers were casually dressed and a small group of Westerners, a member of which I later learned was a Harvard professor, sat at the table in front of me in with T-shirts and with backpacks, looking fresh from a day trip.
Starting the proceedings was a young Vietnamese vocalist with a clear baritone voice and equally clear English. He sang Sinatra songs from the forties and fifties and that classic Elvis song ‘Love me Tender’ which has the tune of an old Irish ballad. Hardly classic jazz songs, but it sent you back to the jazz age and, as Duke Ellington once famously remarked, ‘It’s all music.’ Then the man himself took centre stage. He played Dave Brubeck’s celebrated ‘Take Five’, the title of which I now learn refers to the unusual quintuple time it employs and not to that American habit of slapping the palm of one hand against that of a friend. And what a virtuoso performance! Man and saxophone seemed fused into one mythical being, gyrating back and forth. I could almost see the notes shooting into the night air (I swear I only had two glasses of wine!) with Tuan playing with all the ease you and I might have blowing bubbles using detergent liquid. Then just to show that the Sax ‘n’ Art band does not rely on the one showstopper, the percussionist interposed with a three minute rally on his drums and cymbals.
I could have stayed until midnight, which, generally speaking, is kicking-out time, but there was another engagement to attend. Whether you are looking for a first-class evening’s entertainment, whether this is your first time to experience jazz or whether you have loved it all your life, this place has the cream. If you’re feeling ‘in the mood’ for live music, then beat the blues with Mr Tuan. The owner of Sax ‘n’ Art Jazz Club is an absolutely amazing musician. I am not going to call him ‘King’. The likes of Elvis and Michael Jackson (may they rest in peace) can hold on to that epithet. Vietnam never went in for kings, anyway. Those chaps who ruled the roost in ancient Hue styled themselves ‘emperors’. And, as such, once you have heard him, you surely will agree, Mr Tuan is ‘The Emperor of Sax.’

Sax N’ Art Jazz Club
at 25 Le Loi St, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City
tel: (84-8) 3822 8472, email:
jazz@saxnart.com, website: http://www.saxnart.com
Open nightly with music playing from nine to around midnight

 

By Pip de Rouvray
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