Huu Bac on the dan bau ©Brett Delmage, 2019 
Huu Bac Quach on the dan bau ©Brett Delmage, 2019

The Huu Bac Quintet
Festival de Jazz du Parc de l'Imaginaire
Parc de l'Imaginaire, Gatineau (Aylmer)
Saturday, July 27, 2019 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Huu Bac Quach plays instruments rarely heard in jazz: the Vietnamese dan bau, the Chinese erhu, and Andean quena bamboo flutes. But at his quintet's concert on Saturday, the music and his friendly demeanour instantly broke through any cultural barriers with the audience. They not only listened with great appreciation; afterwards, they crowded around the stage to chat and ask questions for more than half an hour.

Quach describes his music as a mix of Western and Eastern. The same could be said for himself: he was born in Vietnam, but came to Canada as a two-year-old, and was raised in small-town Quebec. During the concert, he spoke fluent and idiomatic Quebec French, exchanging jokes and comments with the audience.

He brought a high-powered and inventive jazz quintet with him from Montreal. Double bassist Jean Félix Mailloux, violinist Marie-Neige Lavigne, and pianist Guillaume Martineau all play in the OPUS Award-winning chamber jazz group Cordâme, whose latest album contains music inspired by Debussy. Martineau, whose background is in both classical music and jazz, was a Radio Canada Revelations jazz winner and combines chamber music, jazz, and rock in his own projects, including a jazz recreation of Nirvana at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival. Drummer Etienne Mason is an improviser and multi-instrumentalist who included field recordings in his original compositions inspired by Quebec's winter, and who creates drum and synth tracks.

The concert featured Quach's own compositions, about half from his 2017 debut album, On the Steps of St. Paul's, and half newer pieces. While the dan bau, erhu, and quena were prominent in the mix, the essential shape of his music was Western, drawing from both melodic jazz and classical music with an occasional tinge of French chanson. It was both varied and immediately approachable, easily keeping one's attention as the instruments smoothly danced together and complemented each other.

The park was almost full with lawn-chairs, with five young children perched in one tree, as the quintet began their 80-minute show. They opened with a tune influenced by Quach's years performing with Peruvian musicians, “Intro Quenacho”. It was a poignant piece, with him playing sweet trills on quena flute together with Lavigne on violin, and reminded me of a 1950s film score. It segued directly into “March Poem”, with him on dan bau and Martineau on keyboards leading the quintet in a joyful and mobile melody.

For “Mister Z”, Quach moved to the erhu, an elongated two-string Chinese fiddle, and played a simple rhythm, which was then echoed by the other members of the quintet. The happy, fun tune alternated between a quieter erhu-led verse, and choruses which had the feel of country swing, with Lavigne's violin sounding like a fiddle.

The dan bau has a single long steel string on top of a decorated wooden soundboard. Its player presses down the string in a specific location with one finger, and then plucks the string to create notes and harmonics. A rod on one side changes the string's tension and is used to lower or raise the pitch of a note. But, despite its simplicity, the instrument produces surprisingly sophisticated music, as could be heard in “Whistling of the Trees”.

Mailloux opened the tune with a strong bass riff, and Quach let his dan bau sweetly ring out over that rhythm. Its sinuous and slightly bluesy lines had elements of both guitar and horns, and Mailloux underlined them with resonant bowed bass lines. The tune, which Quach told the audience reflected the mysteries of nature as heard in a forest, also featured Martineau's shining and emphatic keyboards and Lavigne's sweet violin lines, with a melancholy edge. The dan bau closed by playing in a more traditional Vietnamese style, otherworldly and almost eerie, fading out with a long held note – to strong applause.

Quach's first instrument was guitar, which he has had to mostly give up because of back problems. He brought it out for “Sea Roads”, which he described as the story of his family, and their perilous journey as boat people from Vietnam, to a refugee camp on an Indonesia island, to Canada, fighting off pirates along the way. It was a gentle and hopeful piece with classical overtones: shining notes on piano reminded me of the moon reflecting on the sea, more dramatic chords indicated danger, and guitar and violin gave thanks over atmospheric drums and cymbals. It closed softly like a lullaby.

“March to the City of Dreams” was a dramatic piece propelled by Mason's drumming, with erhu and violin combining to provide a French waltz-like melody. “Sunshine on the Valley Field” was a jubilant tribute to the town Quach grew up in, and featured him alternating between longer and shorter quena flutes to create soaring melodies. The audience greeted it with strong applause and bravos.

The group got more into a groove with “Chéli's Dance”, smoothly combining accented and twinkling keyboards with pizzicato double bass and a fast violin and dan bau melody. The festive rhythms continued in “Grey Scarf”, with dancing notes on keyboards and dan bau.

I had previously heard Quach's album, On the Steps of St-Paul's, and recognized the memorable melody of its title track as soon as the quintet began to play it. The ballad had more of a Vietnamese feel, with its solemn and nuanced melody taken up by dan bau, then violin, then bowed bass, and finally fading out on dan bau.

The quintet closed with a newer composition, “Mekong Waters”. Quach on erhu and Lavigne on violin initially alternated playing the lively melody in a call-and-response and then the music slowed with an extended and dramatic erhu solo with trembling notes. Martineau broke in with an energetic solo, his hands bouncing off the keys, Mailloux continued the fast and insistent beat with a bass solo, and then Mason added an echoing and driving drum solo. Erhu and violin returned, becoming more and more forceful before ending with a full-bodied flourish.

The audience responded with an immediate and extended standing ovation, and then many surged up to talk with Quach and buy CDs.

The Huu Bac Quintet will be heading off later this summer for a 3½-week tour of China and Korea – but this show was their debut in Gatineau and they've never played Ottawa. This is an oversight. The quintet's music is personal and appealing, and embodies the feel of today's Canada in an original voice. It should be more widely heard.

Set List

  1. Intro Quenacho / March Poem
  2. Mister Z
  3. Whistling of the Trees
  4. Sea Roads
  5. March to the City of Dreams
  6. Sunshine on the Valley Field
  7. Chéli's Dance
  8. Grey Scarf
  9. On the Steps of St-Paul's
  10. Mekong Waters

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