On Saturday, Huu Bac Quach will add plaintive and haunting sounds from Vietnam, China, and Peru to mainstream jazz, as his Montreal-based quintet closes the 2019 Festival de Jazz du Parc de l'Imaginaire in Aylmer. The free concert in the park will be his Ottawa-Gatineau debut.

Huu Bac Quintet (photo by Nicolas_Larco)
The Huu Bac Quintet, with Huu Bac Quach in front with dan bau (photo by Nicolas_Larco)

The multi-instrumentalist was a finalist for the Grand Jazz Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2017. He plays the dan bau, a resonant Vietnamese single-string zither, played with one hand bending a handle to modify pitch; the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed fiddle; the quena, a traditional Andean flute; and jazz guitar.

He incorporated all of these – plus piano, bass, drums, and violin – into the compositions on his first album, which he wrote while on a world tour. The result: approachable and engrossing music which pays tribute to both the jazz tradition and Chinese and Vietnamese musical traditions.

To Quach, it's a natural combination: “For me world music is just everything! When I write music, I just try to include everything in it at some level. Everything is equally world music for me – jazz is the folk music of North America and Bach is the folk music of Europe. I'm just trying to bring all the folk music together.”

The cover of his album, On the Steps of St. Paul's, shows him in front of the ruins of the first Christian church in Macao (now a special administrative region of China). Taken by tourists, the photo shows him playing dan bau on the steps of the 400-year-old church, “and at the left side is a traditional Asian building and in the background very far you see a modern skyscraper.”

“I thought it represented well what I do – a mix of Western and Eastern. The three buildings: the traditional Asian side, the European colonial representing the contrapuntal music I like with its European influences, and then there's the modern skyscraper that represents the new world, North America, and jazz, and the new creative side of things.”

Escaping from Vietnam on a boat before his first birthday

Quach's own background is also a mixture of Western and Eastern – in fact, near the Canadian ideal of a cultural mosaic.

Born in Vietnam, he grew up in small-town Québec, has studied music for three years in China, and toured many times in Peru. He speaks five languages: “in order of mastery, it's French, then English, then Spanish, and then Mandarin, and then Vietnamese. The first language that I spoke was Vietnamese, but right now it's my worst language!”

His family were Boat People who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s. His grandfather decided to put half of his ten children on the boats. Half of them stayed in Vietnam because the survival rate at that time going on the sea was about 50%.

“It was the post-war period and Communism was going on full-scale and conditions were really really too difficult. Like most people who went on the boats, we were just looking for a better future. I guess most people didn't see a very good future for their kids.”

Because his family also had partial Chinese ancestry, their situation was worse than most. “They were not welcomed by the new Communist government. They were more oppressed because most of them were merchants, most of them had a little bit more money, so they had to give all their money to the government. My grandfather was selling clothes and fabric, and one day the government came and just took everything – all the money.”

After five days in boats, and 14 months in a refugee camp on an island in Indonesia, they arrived in Quebec in September, 1980. Quach was two years old. They settled in Valleyfield, a small town 25km southwest of Montreal, with very few other Vietnamese nearby.

“My friends were always Canadians, Québecois. So at home it was very 100% Oriental, and outside for me it was 100% Western. I always grew up with this dichotomy; I was always conscious that there was at least two ways to see life and at least two different cultures.”

"I thought I would be a guitar player all my life"

His first instrument was the guitar – playing heavy metal, songs by Metallica and Pantera. When he auditioned to study music at CEGEP, he had to choose between classical and jazz, “so by default I chose jazz but I really didn't know anything. I took some private lessons, just before the audition and somehow I made my way through.”

At CEGEP and later at McGill University, he was introduced to jazz and fell in love with music by Joe Pass, Jim Hall, and Pat Metheny. Metheny is still his biggest influence, his favourite living composer and guitar player. He also regularly attended concerts by guitarist Ben Monder: “harmonically, I really love his work.”

Partway through his McGill degree, he had to drop out because of serious back problems that prevented him from playing guitar. “Until the age of 22 or 23, I was only playing guitar and I thought I would be a guitar player all my life, so I was very depressed. I couldn't imagine stopping playing music.”

That summer, he went back for the first time to Vietnam with his mother – and on a boat, he heard a man playing dan bau. It's a sound he'd heard at home, since his mother listened to recordings of traditional music, but he hadn't heard live. He had no idea that it only had a single string.

“I was totally mesmerized. I made up my mind that, when I come back to Canada, if I cannot play guitar for a while, I'm going to learn this instrument.”

A new path through new instruments

Quach said the purity of the instrument's tone particularly appealed to him. “There's something unexplainable/inexplicable about the harmonics. It feels good, I guess.”

“It has a very vocal quality. A lot of times when I play it, if people are hearing the instrument for the first time, and they think there's someone singing, like a female singer. They look for a singer and then they realize that, 'Oh, it's the dan bau'. The way we play it in Vietnam is based on singing as well.”

By lucky coincidence, one of the three most respected Vietnamese authorities on the dan bau, Pham Duc Thanh, was living in Montreal. “He's back now in Vietnam. But I was lucky enough to study with him and play with him the last five years he was in Montreal. Karma was on my side!”

Quach said he could play dan bau more comfortably than guitar because he wasn't as hunched over the instrument. “It's tough on my shoulder and on my back to play guitar sitting down.”

With Duc Thanh, Quach was studying and playing only traditional music on the dan bau. At the same time, he was also going back to his roots: studying Vietnamese at the local cultural centre, and starting a new degree in East Asian studies.

He also learned the erhu, and played with his erhu teacher in a trio playing Chinese traditional music. In a university course, he gave a talk in Mandarin about his experiences learning the erhu and dan bau, and his professor suggested he apply for an international exchange grant to study Chinese music in Shanghai. He was accepted, and a few months later he was studying erhu at the music conservatory in Shanghai.

The course exposed him to a great variety of erhu and Chinese traditional music, he said, “I bought a lot of CDs and I discovered my favourite players there, to which I still listen today. I just came back ten days ago from a trip to Beijing for more perfecting on the erhu and I did get some lessons with my favourite erhu composer and favourite erhu player there.”

While in Shanghai, he also played with Latin American musicians, learning some of their music. When he returned to Montreal, that inspired him to learn Spanish. In 2006, he recorded a DVD with his Montreal erhu teacher's Chinese traditional trio, and it came to the attention of famed Peruvian musician Lucho Quequezana, who was doing a three-month residency at a Montreal world music festival. Quequezana was intrigued, “and the next thing you know I'm rehearsing Peruvian music with the Chinese trio. A few weeks later, we performed a concert with [Quequezana].”

From 2007 to 2013, Quach played regularly in Peru with Quequezana, sometimes with the entire trio, sometimes just himself. He played the dan bau and erhu in Peru, but also learned different instruments: the Afro-Peruvian cajon, the small guitar, the charango, and in particular, the quena which he plays in his quintet.

"I felt like I was always changing hats"

By 2010, he had reached the point where he wanted to integrate all these musical strands into his own music. “I had my jazz background, I studied dan bau for 8 years, I'd taken erhu and a few years of playing with Lucho. I felt like I was always changing hats – OK now I'm the Vietnamese guy, now I'm the Chinese guy, now I'm the jazz guy, now I'm the South American wanna-be. I felt I was mature enough to try to bring out those experiences and all those different cultures into one thing that would try to make sense, instead of always changing hats.”

He spent the next year and half working on compositions – starting off by taking three months of piano lessons because “one of my biggest influences in composing is Johann Sebastian Bach. It's not really original, but...”.

He learned to write in a contrapuntal manner. “What I like about Bach is how he's writing three-voice pieces, four voices where every line is as important with an equal weight. I wanted to write compositions where, OK, you've got a dan bau playing but I want the dan bau to dialogue with other instruments in an equal way. I really want it to be a dialogue between instruments.”

On the Steps of St. Paul's album cover

He then went on a world tour, visiting 10 countries and composing along the way. He spent seven weeks in Berlin, where seeing the ruins of the Berlin Wall inspired one tune.

“A friend of mine brought me to the remainder of the wall, and I saw all those pictures of people that were shot. I asked my friend what are those pictures, and he said, 'Well, at the time, there was this range of 50 metres if you approached the wall you were shot by guards in towers. And those people tried crossing and they were shot.' I looked at the dates and it was like one week before the wall was down! 'They were still shooting people?' He said yes! I thought it was so ridiculous, if those people had just waited for one week, they would have crossed just walking, but they got shot so I thought it was sad. It inspired that song, the opening track of the album: that 50 metre area where you couldn't approach, it was called the Death Strip. My song on the album is 'Life Strip', a tribute to those people.”

In Paris, he spent four months living in a fifth floor apartment just behind the Notre Dame Cathedral. “The view I had from my balcony was incredible every night” – inspiring his song “The Sun of Notre-Dame”.

Hearing of the fire in the cathedral this summer was “heartbreaking”, he said, both because he had seen it every day for four months, but also because one of his favourite authors growing up was Victor Hugo, and he had read Notre Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] at very young age.

Quach ended up with the 12 pieces on his album, with no specific instrumentation beyond a jazz rhythm section, bass and drums. But at his last stop on his trip, Shanghai, he was staying with a friend who played violin, who helped him record a demo of one song with dan bau, upright bass, and violin. Quach liked the result so much he added violin to the mix.

Then at the same time Quach returned to Montreal in late 2011, pianist Guillaume Martineau [the Radio Canada Révélations jazz winner in 2015-16] was coming back from Berklee. They were long-time friends, but hadn't played together. “When I knew him he was only a classical player. He came back from Berklee and I got an email from him, 'Hey Huu Bac, I'm coming back to Montreal and I guess I play jazz now! I'd like to find something together.' ”

The quintet began playing together in November 2013, and released the album in 2017. The album also contains some material Quach recorded while travelling: several tunes with Quequezana and with quena player Sergio "Checho" Cuadros in Lima, Peru; another with a drummer he heard in Shanghai jazz clubs.

“It was a work in progress I had, and I didn't have any idea of the form's limitations. So every time I met a musician that I liked, I just tried some stuff. It was recorded little by little from 2011 to 2017.”

On Saturday, Quach will bring the full quintet to Aylmer: Martineau, double bassist Jean-Félix Mailloux, and drummer Étienne Mason. Former quintet member Marie-Neige Lavigne will sit in for Zoé Dumais on violin for this show. They will play songs from On the Steps of St. Paul's, and newer pieces written for his next album, which he expects to record in 2020. That album will be a studio recording, live off the floor, with the quintet, he said.

Each concert is a night of discovery

In mid-August, the quintet will begin a 3½ week tour of China and Korea. It will be Quach's first tour of China: “that's a major event for me and my family.” It came out of a music showcase he played in 2018 in Shanghai, which he said was well-received despite Chinese audiences not being used to jazz and not familiar with the concept of world music.

In China right now, Western instruments – especially those used in classical music like piano or violin – are very popular, Quach said. “Traditional music, the old music that's still played on traditional instruments – they try to find a way to still make it relevant today. When I was there 15 years ago, I remember at an erhu recital, they would play the traditional songs accompanied by piano or another traditional instrument and they would end the show accompanying tracks pre-recorded with MIDI sounds – it was very cheesy. I could see that OK they were trying to explore. Last month, when I was in Beijing things are getting very very interesting, they're mixing more cultures, different cultures with their instruments and playing some tango, a mix of music from the Middle East – things that I would not hear 15 years ago. Different rhythms.”

The Chinese want to mix traditional instruments with popular, to make it interesting, to make a dialogue with different cultures, he said. “They like to see how traditional instruments can be used in different ways and in different contexts. I think that's what they liked about my project, maybe, because I usually don't play at the same level technically as people in China on the erhu. I have to find something else to make it interesting, and the blend of cultures I think they find it interesting.”

And what about Canadian audiences?

“The reaction I get from most people after a concert is that they discover a lot of different things. I get this reaction of, 'I'm hearing something very different, different instruments, different sound, but at the same time, there's a familiar side to it, to the music.' There's a familiar aspect, the harmony, the jazz harmony and rhythms, the Western counterpoint, the Western harmony. So there's a balance of familiar and strange, new sounds and many of these great musicians. So a night of discovery.”

The Huu Bac Quintet - Huu Bac Quach (dan bau, erhu, quena, guitar), Guillaume Martineau (piano), Marie-Neige Lavigne (violin), Jean-Félix Mailloux (upright bass), Etienne Mason (drums) - will perform as part of the Festival de Jazz du Parc de l'Imaginaire at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 27, 2019. Admission is free; donations to the Festival are appreciated.

The festival is held outdoors in the Parc de l'Imaginaire in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau, immediately across from the Aylmer Marina (the street address is 9 Front Street). Bring lawnchairs or blankets: there's minimal seating.

In case of rain, performances will be held in Christ Church Aylmer at 101, rue Symmes, about 10 blocks away. The festival will announce at about 2 p.m. each day whether that day's show will be held indoors or outdoors. Watch OttawaJazzScene.ca's twitter feed for the announcement.