Ngo Minh Tri is a sentimental songwriter. His debut Buon C Major is filled with melancholy melodies and languishing lyrics. For instance, the title track—his first jazz composition—was written during the darkest period of his life; “Dau Nang” describes his excruciating pain; and “Buon Cung Sol” was born as a therapist to cure his misery. Only music could relief his aches; therefore, he drowns his sorrows in heart-rending and soul-touching ballads.
The album is consisted of eleven tunes, ranging from jazz to bossa nova to semi-classic, performed by various vocalists: the composer himself, Bao Kim, Trieu Vinh, Nguyen Thao, and Kim Phuong. As a singer, Ngo Minh Tri has a warm, handsome voice, and no trouble pouring out his emotion into “Buon C Major.” Though Bao Kim only featured in one track, her contribution is substantial. She gives the semi-classical “Tieng Ca Dan Hien” an unforgettable performance with her rich-in-tone, exquisite vocals. While Trieu Vinh’s gorgeous baritone supplies the bossa-nova “Pho La” a heartfelt presentation, Nguyen Thao’s clear, charming voice provides “Mot Coi Lung Chung” a soulful rendition.
The key singer of the album, however, is the twenty-three-year-old Kim Phuong whose voice is way more mature than her age. When I first encountered “Mua Xuan, Ruou va Toc Dai,” her dark-voiced quality and expressive delivery commanded my attention. She knows how to wrap her raspy vocals around the intoxicating alto saxophone, plays by Quang Trung. Together with Luat Hoang’s sensuous keyboard, they painted a musical portrait of an elegant lady with long, beautiful hair, and a figure that is more voluptuous than an evening spring. Inspired by Kim Phuong’s remarkable voice, Ngo Minh Tri wrote “Mot Chut Jazz Vao Giong Hat Em,” in which she makes a powerful statement with her outpouring flow and ineffable grace.
Kim Phuong is also a versatile singer. Besides bending her voice around jazz phrases, she could maneuver her ways in and out of semi-classical “Hanh Phuc” as well as ballroom-ballad “Dem Tango.” While it may seem strange to include a tango piece in a jazz album, Ngo Minh Tri has cleverly weaved jazz elements into the habanera dance rhythm—something ragtime pianists occasionally used in their performances. As a result, “Dem Tango” offers a unique approach to jazz instead of falls out of place on the album. Ngo Minh Tri certainly knows what he is doing.
Although the performers are doing an exceptional job, what the album lacking is the liveliness interaction between the vocalists and instrumentalists, an important aspect of jazz. Unlike pop, hip-hop and other styles of Vietnamese music, jazz needs her flexibility to build up her spirit and soul. The musicians need to be in the same studio in order to feed off each other’s vibe. The pre-recording (music and vocal separately) leaves no room for improvisations, scat-singings and solo performances. Since this is a homegrown production, I do understand the limitations. And even though these qualities are missing, Buon C Major is still a strong and solid album. It is not, however, an easy-absorbing one. The recordings require time and attentive listening in order to get acquainted with, and what followed are gratifying experiences. In “Roi Cung Sang Mua He,” performed by Kim Phuong, Ngo Minh Tri expresses how isolated and hard it is for a Vietnamese musician to write jazz compositions exclusively. The path he has chosen might be cold and lonely, but the compensation and the appreciation are much deeper. So keep on walking, and keep on singing like the lyrics have suggested, “Duong ta van di, nhac ta van hat, van hat.”