Nguyên Lê

My language is Jazz, but I have chosen to open it & to feed it with other essential cultures that fascinate me & remind me of my origins,” Nguyên Lê

Nguyên Lê is a self-taught musician, synthesizer programmer, composer,  arranger born in Paris to Vietnamese parents. He began his musical odyssey on the drums at 15, then moved on to the guitar and electric bass. He studied Visual Arts and majored in Philosophy, doing a thesis on Exoticism. Music continued to beckon and he co-created the multi-ethnic band, 'Ultramarine' in 1983 from which the CD, 'DE' was forged and considered "1989's best World Music album" by Philippe Conrath of Libération

Experimenting with a wide array of musical styles, Nguyên Lê participated in and contributed to: rock & funk (Jim Cuomo, Madagascar tour '84), jazz standards & avant garde Jazz (bass player with Marc Ducret, guitar player with Eric Barret), Improvised Music (Yves Robert), singers (Ray Charles), Contemporary Music (André Almuro, Tona Scherchen, Marius Constant, Mauricio Kagel), Ethnic Music: African & Caribbean with Ultramarine ('85), Algerian with Safy Boutella & Cheb Mami, Indian with Kakoli, Turkish with Kudsi Erguner, Vietnamese with his “Dan Bau” (traditional one-stringed instrument) teacher Truong Tang in 1979.

September of 1987 brought him to the O.N.J. (French National Jazz Orchestra), chosen and invited for membership by director Antoine Hervé. Within this big band, he played with such musicians as Johnny Griffin, Louis Sclavis, Didier Lockwood, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Randy Brecker, Toots Thielemans, Courtney Pine, Steve Lacy, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones. Nguyên Le’s work also includes programming synthesizers, effects & computers as well as writing orchestral pieces : 'Processor' composed, arranged & recorded on CD 'O.N.J. 87 & Lunik II' co-arranged with Dominique Borker & performed by the O.N.J. 1989.

By September '89 he recorded the second album with Ultramarine, and 1990 his first album as a leader, 'Miracles',  was recorded in the U.S. with Art Lande, Marc Johnson & Peter Erskine. At the same time he worked with such musicians as Michel Portal, Miroslav Vitous, Trilok Gurtu, J. F. Jenny Clarke, Aldo Romano, Daniel Humair, Dewey Redman, Andy Emler, Jon Christensen, Nana Vasconcelos, Glenn Ferris, Christof Lauer, Paolo Fresu, Kenny Wheeler, and John Taylor. ` 

May of 1992 brought his 2nd album Zanzibar, which got the prestigious Télérama 'ffff' award. This came on the heels of a one month tour with Paul McCandless on winds, Art Lande (piano), Dean Johnson (bass) & Joël Allouche (drums). In January 1993 he recorded 'INIT', a trio with André Ceccarelli, François Moutin & guest Bob Berg, while setting up a new band focusing on the music of Jimi Hendrix, with Corin Curschellas (vocals), Steve Argüelles (drums), Richard Bona (bass). 1993  (and on) continued with frequent guest soloist appearances with Köln's WDR Big band  especially with composer/director Vince Mendoza. Nguyên Lê played on three of his projects: JazzpañaSketches with Dave Liebman, Charlie Mariano, Peter Erskine, & 'Downtown', with Russell Ferrante. 

 Nguyên Lê was the guest soloist of 'The New Yorker', a suite by Bob Brookmeyer, with Dieter Ilg (bass) & Danny Gottlieb (drums) in 1994. With these two musicians he formed his first trio, and recorded Million Waves in December of 1994 about which Télérama wrote : "This trio brings him to some musical spaces which he had not even imagined, & which are pure poetry". At the same time Nguyên Lê was playing in trio with Michel Benita (bass) & Peter Erskine, recording on Michel Portal’s new album with Ralph Towner (guitar), & working with Ornette Coleman on one of his contemporary music pieces, 'Freedom Statue'.

In June 95 he was invited by WDR BigBand in 'Azure Moon', with the Yellowjackets & Vince Mendoza. In July 1995, in the Stuttgart Festival, he was one of the guest guitar players to celebrate the “Universe of Jimi Hendrix”, besides Trilok Gurtu, Terry Bozzio, Cassandra Wilson, Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid, David Torn, Victor Bailey, Pharoah Sanders... Later playing with John McLaughlin, Michel Petrucianni, Markus Stockhausen, Enrico Rava, Ray Anderson, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Dave Douglas, Wolfgang Pushnig, Uri Caine, Tigran Hamasyan, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Joe Lovano.

In April 1996, Nguyên Lê created Tales From Vietnam, a project on Vietnamese music, with an 8-piece band blending jazz & traditional musicians. With stage director P. J. San Bartolomé, he embarked on 'Of the Moon & the Wind', a complete show where traditional & contemporary Vietnamese dancers are integrated to the 'Tales from ViêtNam' orchestra. The CD, 'Tales From Vietnam' received great acclaim from international critics : Diapason d’Or, Choc du Monde de la Musique, Choc of Year 1996 Jazzman, 2nd best CD 96 for Jazzthing (Germany), Best CD 96 on radio TRS 2 (CH), “a minor masterpiece” Jazztimes (USA).

April 1997 brought the release of his 5th CD, Three Trios, with Marc Johnson/ Peter Erskine; Dieter Ilg/ Danny Gottlieb; & Renaud Garçia Fons/ Mino Cinelu.

JAZZIZ Magazine USA: "At times, jazz guitar can sound staid - but not in the case of N. Lê. He’s forever breaking boundaries for our benefit".

He recorded 2 CDs with Paolo Fresu’s quartet: Angel (February 1998) & Metamorfosi  (April 1999). In May 1998, the 6th record was released: Maghreb & Friends, an exploration of Maghreb musical traditions & a deep collaboration with Algerian musicians.

"Far from a false world music, N. Lê simply touches, with force & intensity, to universality", F. Medioni.

N. Lê produced the 1st CD of Huong Thanh, 'Moon & Wind', entirely accomplished in his home studio. He was also nominated for the 'Victoires de la Musique'  award, 1999. His CD, Bakida, is based on his regular trio with Renaud Garçia Fons (bass) and Spanish percussionist Tino di Geraldo (percussion, drums) plus guests from all over the world like Kudsi Erguner, Chris Potter, Carlos Benavent. This CD has been voted "best jazz album of the year" by "CD Compact" (Spain).

In September of 2002, the Huong Thanh CD, titled Dragonfly, was released. In June of that year N. Lê was invited by the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands) to play his music arranged by Vince Mendoza. Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix, was released in September of 2002. This was and is one of Lê’s most successful albums, with rocketing CD sales & non stop touring all over the world.

'Mangustao', Huong Thanh’s 3rd album, released in January 2004, was awarded as “Choc de la Musique” by French magazine, Le Monde de la Musique. In March of 2005 Walking on the Tiger’s Tail was released. This was a new album with his great friends Art Lande, Paul McCandless & Jamey Haddad.

“A universe where the alliance between acoustic and electric, improvisation and writing, inner delicacy and virtuosic expressivity reach the ideal balance.”(Le Monde).

Several projects were executed in 2006 : the score writing of “Le Sheitan”, a movie by Kim Chapiron with Vincent Cassel & Homescape a very electronic, improvised & mystical recording in collaboration with Paolo Fresu & Dhafer Youssef, all done at home. There was also the score for the Vietnamese movie “Saigon Eclipse” by Othello Khanh; the recording of “Mozart” last Uri Caine’s album; a 13-gig tour in the USA with “Tiger’s Tail” quartet, thanks to a CMA/FACE grant; two “classical” compositions commissioned by the Ahn Trio & the Laguna Beach Fest in Los Angeles. In addition, Nguyên Lê was unanimously awarded the guitar “Django d’Or” 2006.

In 2007, after tours in US & China, he released Fragile Beauty, the 4th album with Huong Thanh.

"Simply an album that captures the heart from the first note and leaves it hungering for more as the last one fades." (All That Jazz)

In 2008 he recorded Othello Syndrome for Uri Caine, Blauklang for Vince Mendoza & also Dream Flight, a new ELB (Erskine, Lê and Benita) album, with guest Stéphane Guillaume on sax.

His 2009 project, 'Saiyuki', assembled Japanese koto and shamisen player Mieko Miyazaki and Indian tabla player Prabhu Edouard. It draws on a renowned Chinese 16th century novel. The story’s epic excursion from China to India becomes a metaphor for the three players’ musical journeys, real or imagined(3). The CD features Mieko Miyazaki (koto) & Prabhu Edouard (tabla) and special guest Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute).

As a sound engineer he mixed and co-produced Dhafer Youssef's album, 'Abu Nawas Rhapsody', Céline Bonacina’s, 'Way of Life' & Mario Canonge's, 'Mitan'.  A double-CD album covering 20 years of music creation, 'Signature Edition', was released by ACT in march 2010.

"The ample evidence of an artist whose voice has been his own from the very beginning". AllAboutJazz

He was guest soloist on Erkki Sven Tüür’s 5th symphony with Bremen Philarmonic. For the 2nd time Nguyên Lê received the CMA/FACE grant which supports the 'Saiyuki inviting Rudresh Mahanthappa' project to tour in US in the fall 2010. In 2011 he was awarded the rank of 'Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts & des Lettres' by the French Cultural minister & received the Django Reinhardt prize by French Academie du Jazz. 

2011 saw the release of Lê's 'Songs of Freedom', an album with exotic interpretations of pop song hits from the 1970s with Illya Amar, Linley Marthe, St. Galland & guests Youn Sun Nah, David Linx, Dhafer Youssef, a.o. It received great acclaim from the international press - 'Record of the Year' & the cover story in Jazzmagazine/Jazzman and topped the jazz charts of Itunes and Amazon. N. Lê joined Vince Mendoza in his last album, 'Nights on Earth' and took part in the 1st International Jazz Day celebration at Unesco with Herbie Hancock.

In 2013 Lê produced the album, 'Doc Dao' for & with Hanoian singer Tung Duong, for which he received 3 awards in Vietnam : 'Best Song of the Year', 'Man of the year' and 'Best Show of the Year'. In 2014 he released, 'Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon', a very personal version of the famous Pink Floyd album, with the NDR Bigband, Youn Sun Nah, Gary Husband & Michael Gibbs orchestrations.

He was nominated as best international guitarist for the ECHO JAZZ 2015 (German Music Award) beside Bill Frisell & Pat Metheny.

2017 brought the release of Nguyên Lê’s 16th album, 'Hà Nôi Duo'. This work was brought about through the meeting and collaboration with the Vietnamese, traditional musician, Ngo Hong Quang, with the goal of expressing & sharing with the world the soul of Vietnam, and bringing together the roots and the future of Vietnamese music.

In November, 2018 N. Lê is featured in an article in the Italian, Axe Guitar Magazine (p.22), in which he also mentions his choice of Zexcoil pickups for his renowned Tiger’s Tail guitar (p.26).

N. Lê’s much anticipated album, ‘Streams’, was released in February of 2019. Also much awaited, his album, ‘Overseas’, was released not much later in October 2019.

"Nguyên Lê’s guitar playing is technically assured and always to the point, his writing pulls the various elements impressively into shape and the album captures the sense of a world in flux“ (Financial Times)

"Vibrant music fusing jazz-inspired arrangements and the hip-hop zeitgeist, plus Vietnamese folk music on traditional instruments, it's inspiring and brings vivid images of today's Vietnam to mind" (Jazz thing)

Few musicians embody the word "fusion" more than Parisian-born guitarist Nguyên Lê. For the past 25 years he's been mining a combination of fusion by the more conventional definition — the infusion of rock energy into the jazz sphere—with fusion in a broader sense, the seamless integration of music from cultures around the world. (All About Jazz)

Nguyên Lê is a masterful, inventive player who has cultivated a wholly unique voice on the intsrument, he ranks right up there with Frisell, John Scofield, Mike Stern & Allan Holdsworth in the post Hendrix world of jazz guitar (Jazztimes)


Nguyên Lê Streams quartet, with Illya Amar, Chris Jennings & John Hadfield. recorded at Malambo studio in Paris sept 11, 2016
Progressive Jazz, Traditional Music, Psychedelic Rock, Hip Hop Groove, Circus Fantasy, Urban & Contemporary Dance united in a performance driven by the soul of Vietnamese migration. 10 Vietnams musicians & performers from all over the world.


1 The International Who's Who in Popular Music 2002edited by Andy Gregory