Hà Nội, Love & The Shadow of Jazz

Although I am no longer keeping up with Vietnamese music, I would like to point out two notable Vietnamese-jazz albums released this year: Phạm Thu Hà’s Hà Nội…Yêu and Giáng Son’s Bống Tối Jazz (The Shadow of Jazz). Both albums came out about a week apart and both have their own target audience.

If you are new to jazz, Hà Nội…Yêu is a good introduction. Chances are you already familiar with ballads such as “Đoản Khúc Thu Hà Nội” (Trịnh Công Sơn), “Gửi Người Em Gái” (Đoàn Chuẩn & Từ Linh), and “Yêu” (Văn Phụng). The arrangements and orchestrations under the direction of Vũ Anh Tuấn are jazzy, calm, and enjoyable.

Right off the opening track, the upright bass, the muted trumpet, and the drum brushes create a soothing vibe inviting the listeners into an autumn afternoon in Hà Nội. Phạm Thu Hà’s slightly raspy voice is a perfect match for the instrumentations. In delivering these ballads, she doesn’t deviate much from the original compositions. In “Yêu,” she sings with ease and maneuvers her way around the bossa-nova arrangement. Hà Nội…Yêu is an ideal album for late-night relaxation and introspection.

Bống Tối Jazz (The Shadow of Jazz), on the other hand, is more for the adventurous jazz listeners. Unlike Hà Nội…Yêu, all the compositions are written by Giáng Son and arranged in contemporary styles including funk, soul, and rock. Despite its modernness, Bống Tối Jazz is not a challenging album if you can get past the idiosyncratic wordless singing from Trần Thu Hà and Tùng Dương.

Trần Thu Hà, in particular, makes all sort of weird vocables ranging from groaning to moaning to screaming to who knows what she’s doing. On “Thu Cạn (The End of Autumn),” for instance, her emphatic phrasing damn near ruined her singing and the beautiful melody. Her acapella version of “Cỏ và Mưa (Grass and Rain)” irritating and detracting from the essence of the ballad. In contrast, the result is stunning when she just sings and only scats two bars on the title track. “Nắng Muộn (Late Ray of Sunbeam)” is hypnotizing when she plays with her timing rather than her emphasis.

For Tùng Dương, his finest contributions are the fusion pieces such as the jazz-rock “Vệt Buồn (Stain of Sadness)” and the funk-jazz “Những Mùa Hè Lạnh (Chilly Summers).” His signature cadences are all over the tracks. The bossa-nova “Đêm Đợi (Lingering Night)” and “Chạm (Fondling)” are not as strong, but intoxicating nevertheless.

As a whole, Bống Tối Jazz is a fine album thanks to Giáng Son’s skillful lyrics, melodies, and harmonies. It would have been even better if Trần Thu Hà refrains herself from making all the vocal gibberish. Still, if you are into Vietnamese music with some jazz flavors, I recommend both albums.