When I first learned that Thu Hoai was making her debut album with an acoustic jazz trio, I was very excited for her. I got nervous, however, when she told me the tunes she was going to cover including “La Chanson D’Orphee,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Cry Me a River.” These are great choices of standards, but would she able to pull them off? After listening to La Chanson D’Orphee, I am not alone. Thu Hoai was nervous as hell as well.
“Autumn Leaves” leads off the album with a bossa-nova groove. I heard Thu Hoai performed live a couple of times before, but never in such a constrained approach. She fluffs from French, English (even mixed the two) to Vietnamese and the band damn near drowns her out. Likewise, she struggles to connect to the musicians on “Besame Mucho,” another Latin flavor. The piano’s ostinato comping into instead of around her vocals. When she drops out, the drums and bass play stronger and tighter accompanying the piano solo.
Through her stilted flow and lacking of confidence on the title track, it is apparent that she is not from the school of jazz. She doesn’t possess the chops to improvise her ways through timing, phrasing and interacting with the band. On “Moon River” she latches on to the slow tempo and she recites rather than sings the words.
“Nang Thu” is the turning point of the album. Thu Hoai sings with much more confidence even the rhythm section kicks up a notch. She sounds at ease with the trio and her phrasing comes across much more natural as if she could feel the beat. Although she has also loosen up on the fun, up-tempo “‘S Wonderful,” it is her version of “Nang Thu” that makes me wish she had recorded the entire album reinterpreting Vietnamese compositions.
The intention of wanting to attract an international audience is very ambitious. No crime in that, but start from the core first before branching out. Even Shakira didn’t become an international sensation over night or with just one album.