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Nguyên Lê's 'Saiyuki' at GlobalFEST: A Jazz-World Mashup With an Eastern Bent

Some of the most exciting musical collaborations are happening between jazz, classical and world musicians these days. Musicians have always fed off interaction with other players, but the sheer variety of music that is available coupled with access to international players has led to some truly exquisite sounds.

In the classical world the work of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and its spinoff collaborations between Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider come to mind and of course, the by now venerable Kronos Quartet and maverick violinist Giles Apap. In the jazz world the same foment is apparent (the kora seeming to be the instrument of choice these days, appearing alongside jazz heavies) and when the world music extravaganza of GlobalFEST blew into the Apple in January, it brought Nguyen Le's "Saiyuki" with it.

The FEST took place at Webster Hall, utilizing three separate stages hosting four acts each: The Studio had the feel of a roadside bar, the Marlin room was more suited to a Cabaret/listening experience, and the Ballroom was reserved for the highest decibel, big crowd acts. "Saiyuki" was wisely booked into the Marlin Room.

Lê's name is practically synonymous with polyglot music; witness allaboutjazz.com describing his 2006 CD "Homescape" as a combination of "post-Hendrix rock, Milesian harmon-mute free improv, Maghrebi trance music, Ellingtonia, ambient, a Papua New Guinea vocal choir....Delta blues, Vietnamese folk tunes, flamenco, Iranian modes, a Sardinian choir, Australian aboriginal ritual music, French chanson, Gregorian chant, and Indonesian gamelan/gong music." The man is eclectic, and joyfully so.

"Saiyuki," his latest aggregate is a trio. In it, he has brought together Mieko Miyazaki (Japan) on koto and Prabhu Edouard (India) on Tablas. (Lê played his backups in mid to low range to fatten up an otherwise treble sound.) The group's performance was one of the highlights of GlobalFEST, and I'm glad I got a chance to catch it on video, even with the uneven sound, and video quality attendant on these kinds of situations...note the shattered glass sound from the bar... oh well.

Miyazaki dominates this particular piece, which she also composed. Personally, I felt that each player brought so much of their own culture along that at times it seemed that the music was not as much "jazz" as "jazz enabled," with that form giving the musicians a more liberal harmonic matrix and greater freedom to fly. But the end result was something unusual and hard to classify; I guess "world music" as a term, still has its uses.