An adventurous, genre-bending guitarist, France's Nguyên Lê emerged in the 1980s playing an expansive brand of improvisational music heavily steeped in jazz, fusion, and funk, as well as ambient new age and various ethnic traditions from around the globe. His early albums with his band Ultramarine caught the attention of the international jazz community, as did his 1990 debut, Miracles, alongside pianist Art Lande, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Marc Johnson. While probing, electric, and electronic-accented jazz is his mainstay, he has explored varied sounds — from his own Vietnamese roots on Tales from Viet-Nam to African and Middle Eastern sounds on Maghreb & Friends. He has also paid homage to his more rock-oriented influences, issuing 2003's Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix and the 2015 Pink Floyd tribute album Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon. A star in Europe, Lê has found enthusiastic support around the world, working with such like-minded contemporaries as trumpeter Paolo Fresu, reed player Michel Portal, Vietnamese vocalist Huong Thanh, and others.
Born in 1959 in Paris to Vietnamese parents, Nguyên Lê played drums in his teens, and later switched to bass and then guitar. While largely self-taught, he progressed quickly and by college was expanding into jazz, rock, and ambient musical styles, working with electronics and programming. He initially studied both visual arts and philosophy (authoring his thesis on Exoticism) before dedicating himself to music. In the early '80s, he formed the multi-ethnic ensemble Ultramarine, and released several highly regarded genre-bending albums including 1985's Programme Jungle and 1989's Dé. He also joined France's Orchestre National de Jazz, with which he recorded albums like Orchestra '87 and Lunik II, and worked with a bevy of luminaries like Carla Bley, Didier Lockwood, Louis Sclavis, Steve Lacy, and others.
For 2011's Songs of Freedom, Lê interpreted songs with themes of unity and love, including compositions by Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and others. Also in 2011, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts & des Lettres by French Cultural minister and received the Django Reinhardt prize from the French Academie du Jazz. 2012's Urban Folktales showcased the guitarist alongside Theo Bleckmann and the Jazz Bigband Graz. He joined the NDR Bigband for the 2015 Pink Floyd tribute album Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon. That same year, he was nominated alongside Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell for Germany's Echo Jazz Award. In 2017, he collaborated with Vietnamese fiddle and lute player Ngô Hồng Quang on Hà Nội Duo, which also featured contributions from trumpeter Fresu. ~ Matt Collar