the game changer: tran many tuan and jazz in vietnam / by patrick carpenter

note: an abridged version of this article appeared in the October issue of Oi' Magazine

The Game-Changer

It makes sense that you hear him before you see him.

Tran Manh Tuan, the musician. The game-changer.

Walking up to his villa in the morning after the rain in a sleepy part of the second district, there are the unmistakable sounds of a saxophone going up and down the tonal scale. Throaty, urban sounds, louder than expected. It’s a distinctly metropolitan wake up call. The saxophone is fluent in the dialects of the city – it honks, it bellows, it stops traffic. It flirts, it wounds, it lures. It’s a train through town, it’s the end of an affair. Now though, the tones rush up and down and escape from his basement studio and spread out over koi ponds and broad palms, past drowsy Chihuahuas, and through the iron front gate. If you live on this street, you get free concerts. The rest of us have his Sax‘n Art club on Le Loi, or can catch him in or in front of the Opera House or Bitexco, or anywhere around Saigon he headlines with his big band, or his eleven year old daughter, or whomever he is riffing with on that day in his busy calendar.

Minor mistake: it’s not him we hear. It’s a student playing scales. Tuan is standing at arm’s length from his student at a long table listening actively. Restlessly. He already knows what he’s going to say, but he waits for the student to finish. He’s heard these notes come out of a saxophone since he was eight years old. Same notes, every time. Slightly different, every time. It has to be tedious, as if each time you wanted to have a meaningful conversation, you had to begin by reciting the alphabet.

He’s standing, moving, stopped. Standing, moving, stopped. It’s rhythmic, like every single thing in his life. He appears a block of trapped energy, with a frame that suggests a deep breath bottled and held for the solo. He’s dressed in a dark t-shirt and linen lounge pants.  He wears his hair pulled back tight into a stub of a ponytail and sports a 1940s moustache in the manner of Ronald Coleman, or better yet, jazz icon and fellow saxophonist John Coltrane. The moustache lends panache. His glasses are perfectly round black frames with faintly tinted blue lenses; they have the early 20th century sophistication Ralph Lauren pushes hard. Around his neck is a harness that comes down to a V at his stomach. There’s a catch at the end and it looks like he’s either going to strap on a fishing pole and hook a marlin, or he’s just been awarded some kind of engineering medallion. But it’s just there to cradle any one of his many different horns, and why bother taking it off when you’re just going to put it on again because you are always making music?

“That’s a good sax!” He tells his student, a classically trained musician who also teaches saxophone. Tuan is not just a performer, recording artist, producer, composer, club owner, big band leader, GAME CHANGER… He is also a teacher of teachers. They come to learn how to play – as in, play around. They may know how to read music, to play scales and make their way through the standards – songs like Gershwin’s Summertime, or Autumn Leaves, or more appropriately for Saigon now, Stormy Weather - but they are searching for the feel.  “If you can’t play, if you can’t feel, you can’t have jazz.”

Jazz may have been born in the churches and brothels of New Orleans after the American Civil War ended in 1865. Slave songs, Sunday choirs, and surplus horns and drums from the battlefields came together in the most blended city of America, in the most mixed breed of music. It evolved from the blues to swing and beyond and traveled out to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City. Then through world wars and peace it reached Paris and Berlin and other European cities before wandering into Asia on wax records and phonographs on colonial steamers and in soldiers’ kits. Jazz moved easily, fast and loose and willing, and evolved constantly. Joyous, desolate, it encompasses all of life. But at its base there were three constants: it was a distinctively American art form (as in: a new century, new world, new rules), definitively improvisational, and undeniably racial: blended at its best, divided at its most troubled. Over time, the first and last constants have faded, leaving improvisation as the single star to guide them.

“If you asked me to play exactly what I played last night at the club, I couldn’t do it. Each night is different. I’m playing and I’m improvising - off the body language of the band, the audience; I’m reading the mood and responding, interpreting. We’re [the band] communicating on that stage, really understanding each other. We’re communicating back and forth and with the audience in a universal language.”

So let’s be blunt: how did something like jazz find a home in a place like this? Vietnam’s traditional music is an ocean away from negotiation and improvisation and personalization. It’s not free in the sense that you can’t break into a song and take it this way or that depending on the mood. You don’t figure it out as you go along, passing it around to each musician to build upon. At the same time, the traditional culture here, with its Confucian ethos and Buddhist influences, has long valued obedience and subjugation of the self. In such a setting, jazz seems decadent, almost irreverent. Is it therefore any wonder that the Vietnamese nickname for the saxophone is ‘the prostitute’ because it can go so easily with so many different styles of sound?

“I first heard a saxophone when I was eight years old. I remember it clearly. It was from a song by Trinh Cong Son, Vietnam’s number one composer. I had been playing in my parents’ Cai Luong group since I was five. I played the moonstring, Vietnam’s two-string guitar.  I didn’t have a childhood, I had the moonstring. But I heard that sax and it was like the first day of the rest of my life. It was the range of sound from the sax that hooked me. I started playing the saxophone in restaurants, around the swimming pools of five-star hotels, with a band, whenever and wherever I could.”

But how do you build a home without a foundation? You start by importing the bricks. In 1989, a group from France called Oui, Oui, Oui came and played at the French language center. ‘We talked about jazz and when they went back they sent cassettes. I listened to those tapes over and over and to CDs that my friends brought from Eastern Europe. I loved it, learned as much as I could. The music had soul. It was personal, but at the same time, very open. And I was looking for a way to express myself. Jazz fit my persona and the saxophone fit my character.”

And the audience? “My first CD was a flop. It was a collection of jazz standards but there were two things wrong. First, I focused on technique, not soul. It’s not going to sell without soul. Jazz music is about intensity and dynamism. The melody is one thing, but you can recognize who is playing with soul. Second, I had no audience. I had to build one. So I built a club.”

Friday night. The interior of Tuan’s club is bathed in red and blue light. The combination makes the interior something between plum and wine. There are saxophones wired into the walls and large photos of Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and the usual suspects that make up the Mt. Rushmore of horn blowing. There are replicas of Tuan’s CDs. It’s exceptionally clean. This is no downtown dive. In fact, it may be the best smelling club ever, with traces of tropical spices mixing with the citrus of the cocktails. The musicians take the stage at nine, killing the smooth jazz video and vibe. Piano, sax, bass, and drums. They’re all mid-40s or so, black shirts, jeans, different lengths of hair. The drummer is bald. It somehow fits that the sax player has slick and shiny patent leather pointed shoes, while the base player kicks back in white canvas sneakers. If you saw them on the street on a Tuesday afternoon, you’d say: those guys look like they play in a jazz band. In short, they look the part. The set starts with a jazz standard Beautiful Life and the sax holds the spotlight before handing it off to the piano player.

“I started the club eleven years ago. I needed a place where I could go and play, so I decided to build one and hire myself to play every night. My friends all said I was crazy. And when they heard how much I put into the sound system, they said I was really crazy. They said: ‘Where’s your audience?’ Well, in the beginning, 99% of my audience was imported. It was expats and foreign tourists. I needed to find a way to grow a local audience.”

The band plays two more songs, warming up on the way. They are joined by a thin young Vietnamese man named Tony in a sharp white blazer and glasses who takes the microphone and starts to sing Hallelujah, I Love Her So. It’s a polished rendition, with energy. No crooning mystery here: Tony is happy he’s in love and letting everyone know. The early crowd is 60-40% foreign middle-aged to Vietnamese young professional. Three young, attractive Vietnamese girls walk in and the piano player stops looking at his keys. They order drinks with maximum color and umbrellas. Tony moves into the song Crazy, which he calls ‘a Julio Iglesias song’. Patsy Cline would fall to pieces if she heard that. But it’s fun and the floor keeps filling up. More Vietnamese, mostly young, a large table of Japanese businessmen, and two tables of four of late 20s mixed company. By ten o’clock, the club is full and well blended: Asian tourists, western tourists, expats, and locals, from mid-20s to mid-60s. The drinks at the tables are mostly blue, but there are bottles of whisky and highball glasses as well. All eyes are on the musicians, the chit-chat is minimal. It’s definitely a club where you come to listen, and the product is class. Tony takes a bow and makes way for the game changer.

“I figured out how to bring Vietnam to jazz. I had to build a bridge. I picked out old Vietnamese folk music and rearranged the sound with soft jazz. I used traditional Vietnamese instruments like the bamboo flute, or the instruments of the ethnic minorities in the north, and this way, the people could recognize the melody and sing along with the song, but then also be interested in where I would take it. People call this fusion and to many it is still what I am best known for, this blending of the types of music, the cultures, something familiar but then new. If you only do things for the audience, if you just do what they like, then you are not a true artist, and you’ll have nothing at the end of the day. But you also have to be careful not to push too hard or they will go away. I made this bridge and it was trail-blazing, game-changing. I put these songs on my next CD and it was a huge hit. In fact, my second CD is still my best selling CD.”

Tuan breaks out the bamboo instruments on his second song, which seems to start in the northern forests before turning abruptly into the city when he puts down the bamboo and picks up his sax. By the end of the song, we’re closer to Harlem than Ha Giang, and Tuan is really letting loose and loud. The audience tries to keep up. Throughout the remainder of his set, which includes new renditions of Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone), Autumn Leaves, Georgia (On My Mind), and a funk version of Summertime, Tuan is constantly picking up, playing, and putting down different instruments. He plays the tenor sax, the alto sax, the soprano sax, a fender Stratocaster, bongo drum, slaps a cymbal. He intersperses the melodies with something like a recorder that was modeled after the Armenian duduk, and unique ethnic minority instruments that look like they came out of someone’s garden. One looks like three pipes coming out of a gourd, another a bit like the pan flute. When he plays them, you can see why his brand of Vietnamese fusion has caught on: they give you a true sense of place without any trappings of nostalgia. You won’t get this anywhere else from anyone else and the audience, regardless of their knowledge of jazz, seems to recognize they are getting something rare, something real.

“Day by day, the audience’s knowledge is getting better. Technology is a big part of it. The improvements in technology have meant easier access to different types of music. People are curious and they are starting to explore more musically. And I see the result in my club. More Vietnamese are coming, they’re younger and they’re coming with more understanding. Travel is another factor, both in terms of exploring outside Vietnam, and musicians coming here. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries with my music, and I’ve played with some of the greats here in Vietnam. What I am seeing is that jazz is now truly universal. It’s a global language. You have African and Arab beats and melodies in French jazz, you have jazz festivals in places like Chiang Mai with musicians from Myanmar, Laos all giving local color. I’ve gone and played with monks chanting in the pagoda in Hue. It’s all very free now. Americans are still very proud of owning the origins of jazz, but when you play with the greats like Herbie Hancock or Derek Nash, they give you space to create your own way.”

Appropriate, therefore, that Tuan’s set ends with Fly Me To The Moon. It starts misty, matching the weather, but the audience knows by now there’s going to be fireworks before the song is through. Sure enough, Tuan and his band take everyone for a tour of sound, complete with him playing the soprano and alto sax together at the same time, music coming from both sides of his mouth in a frenzied Latin samba chica chica boom chic. From Jupiter and Mars to Rio in one song. From Louisiana to Lao Cai in one evening. Trail-blazer. Game-changer. Enough said.

Art Blakely, famous jazz drummer, used to say that jazz ‘washes away the dust of every day life’. The audience drains out of the club, the music still vibrating in their heads, and into the wet of the Saigon night. Looking up and out at the streets, you see that all the dust has indeed been washed away. A good storm will do that. But so will a good sax.