Music of Ngo Thuy Mien and Trinh Cong Son has been done many times with jazz-inflected renditions. The pop-jazz fusions give NTM’s and TCS’s signature pieces new sounds, and please most bourgeois, but not the aficionados. To transform Vietnamese ballads from jazz intimation into real jazz, we need the experts. In 2000, Lang Van production distributed Purple Refrain — a live jazz session performed by the jazz pianist Peter Zak and his band. With John Wiitala on bass, Edward McClary on drums, and Dave Tidball on saxophone, Peter Zak turned NTM’s and TCS’s pop standards into phenomenon jazz tunes.
Zak’s unique approach to Vietnamese music and his ingenious escapes from the written melody make Purple Refrain an unforgettable art. He has not only found his way into the music, but also breaks down the melodies, then re-assembles them with his own interpretation to suit the complex, syncopated rhythms of jazz. For instance, he plays his piano at a doubled tempo on “Vanishing” (TCS’s “Phoi Pha”) instead of sticking with slow harmony. On the title track, “Purple Refrain” (NTM’s “Dau Tinh Sau”), he starts off with the original melody, but shifts gears toward the middle with his own elegant piano improvisation. The results are groundbreaking because Zak’s trio lets TCS and NTM music flow in away they never had before.
By putting on a feverish jazz spin, Zak’s trio gives the classics “To You With Love” (NTM’s “Giang Ngoc”) and “Without You” (NTM’s “Chieu Nay Khong Co Em”) a fresh makeover. With the addition of Dave Tidball’s polished and sensuous saxophone, both “After Times” (TCS’s “Nghe Nhung Tan Phai”) and “In a Deserted Town” (TCS’s “Du Muc”) are soothing, reviving and invigorating. Accompanied by the drunking bass and dynamic drums, the piano and the saxophone complement each other creating endless imagination on both compositions. I wish “The Last Love Song” (NTM’s “Ban Tinh Cuoi”) could have performed with the quartet instead of the trio. The song requires tremendous emotions, and the tenor saxophone would have done a fantastic job at the bridge where the male voice crescendoes, “Tinh la dang… cay…” (Love is bit…ter…).
What I like most about Purple Refrain is how Zak was able to create true jazz music without loosing the Vietnamese aesthetics. My respect and appreciation go to Lang Van production, Peter Zak and his band for bringing jazz to the Vietnamese community, as well as bringing Vietnamese music to the western audience. I hope Peter Zak and his crew could produce more albums like Purple Refrain, a gorgeous jazz flavor with a Vietnamese essence.