Jazz is Not Just Noise

Have you ever tried to explain to your uncle what jazz is? Over Thanksgiving dinner, the subject somehow switched from my cousin’s hookup arrangement to music. My uncle said all that he knew about jazz was a bunch of noise. So there was no point of trying to sell him on Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane. Instead I picked out something that he was familiar with, and you just can’t go wrong with Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son. The challenge was to select a tune that had that jazz aesthetics in it. Khanh Ly’s 1973 rendition of “Dem Thay Ta La Thac Do” was perfect. As the song plays, I briefly walked him through it:

The intro kicked off with an exchange between the sax and trumpet like they were having a conversation with one another.

0:25: Khanh Ly’s raucous voice joined in as the plucking bass provided the rhythm. The blue note on the piano added an intoxicating tincture to her vocals.

1:30: The sax solo took over. Listen to how the horn expressed its tone like a human voice with its soars and screams.

2:00: The muted trumpet improvisation supplied a dark, mysterious, and sensuous mood to the break.

2:15: Both the sax and the trumpet interacted once again, but this time they brought back the original melody to introduce Khanh Ly’s second verse.

3:40: The sax and the keyboard gave a wonderful closing out, but it is the tinkering guitar that gave the ending a novelty.

After this little introduction, my uncle nodded his head. Not only that he didn’t think jazz was just noise anymore, he showed some interests. The only missing piece was that Khanh Ly didn’t scat, so I couldn’t show him the art of jazz’s wordless singing. Still this track was a great example for explaining jazz to a Vietnamese person.

It’s a damn shame that we don’t get this kind of “real” musical accompaniment with today’s Vietnamese music recordings. If you listen to Khanh Ly’s later rendition of “Dem Thay Ta La Thac Do,” you’ll feel the great lost immediately. The programmed drums are simply there to maintain the rhythm, and the bass sounds like my nephew’s fart. Too sad.