Bích Vân – Kiếp Nào Có Yêu Nhau

Bích Vân’s debut, Kiếp Nào Có Yêu Nhau, demonstrates the benefits of being an independent singer. She has complete control of her creative output. She chose the right songs for her voice and hired the appropriate musicians to produce them. The result is a superb album that could be experience in its entirety.

Even though nine out of the ten songs on the album are well-known standards, she has managed to inject her own feelings and soaring soprano into them with the help of elegant, exceptional arrangements. On “Nữa Hồn Thương Đau,” Hoài Phương reworks a Phạm Đình Chương ballad into a blues form and Zoltan Vegvari enhances the song with his mesmerizing piano solo and accompaniment. Hoài Phương also turns “Tuổi 13,” a Ngô Thụy Miên’s ballad, into a bossa nova flavor and adds his own sax supplement into the record.

Elsewhere, Hoàng Công Luận, one of the Vietnamese best classical-inflected arrangers and pianists, contributes three excellent tracks. His skillful string orchestration is showcased in the title track, “Kiếp Nào Có Yêu Nhau” (Phạm Duy), and his sensational jazz touch is displayed in “Hoài Cảm” (Cung Tiến).

Another standout arranger is Phan Khắc Tuấn who invigorates “Xin Còn Gọi Tên Nhau,” a Trường Sa standard, using the blues. Brian Mantz enriches the late-night vibe with his hypnotic muted trumpet sounds. With Ngô Hoàng’s sensational orchestration, Bích Vân was abled to slip in her own tune “Một Mảnh Tình Thơ” without sounding out of place among the old standards.

Although the album features a wide range of songs and arrangers, it still sounds cohesive throughout because of Bích Vân’s indelible delivery and art direction. Kiếp Nào Có Yêu Nhau is a strong debut. Can’t wait to hear where she will be heading next.

Editorial Design: Digital and Print

Packed with contents and examples on editorial design, Cath Caldwell and Yolanda Zappaterra’s book is not easy to digest. The scattering information interrupts the flow. Text, Illustrations, and commentaries are not organized in a logical hierarchy. The main text, which sets in a slab, geometric typeface, is hard to read. Worse is when the same typeface is set in white against the dark background. The text is barely readable. As far as the contents, the book focuses far more on print than digital editorial design. Sorry, not recommending it.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

In his new book on Billie Holiday, John Szwed sheds some lights on the mysterious complexity in the life and music of one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. He divided the book into three distinctive sections. In the first part, he reveals stories that were left off her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. The incidents were too bold for 1956, when the book was published. In the second part, he briefly reconstructs Billie’s appearances on film, television, and photography. The best part of the book yet is the musical analysis. From Billie’s unconventional approach to singing to her distinctive vocals to her controversial song choices, Szwed makes her music easy to understand and to appreciate. Szwed is a musical scholar with a gift for explaining music in plain and simple language. I’ll definitely reread it in the near future since the book is set in Arno Pro, a beautiful and readable text face designed by Robert Slimbach.

Clinton & Warren for 2016

Hilary Clinton has entered the race and Elizabeth Warren told Bill Maher on Real Time that she won’t be running even if he promised to contribute a million dollars to her campaign. If Warren stays true to her word, although I hope she would change her mind, I am all for the Clinton-Warren ticket in 2016.

If history repeats itself, we will have another Clinton vs. Bush, and I won’t mind seeing the Clinton in the White House for eight more years. Maybe Hilary will get her revenge by having some young male interns tossing her salad—just kidding.

Giang Trang – Hạ Huyền 2

Giang Trang is apparently a devotee of Trịnh Công Sơn’s music. In her debut, Lênh Đênh Nhớ Phố, she brought some fresh air into his songs with her earthy interpretation backed by pared-down accompaniment of violinist Anh Tú and guitarist Anh Hoàng. In her sophomore release, Hạ Huyền, she continued to record Trịnh’s music, but experimented with richer sounds from guitarist Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, flutist Sương Mai, cellist Lê Thanh Long and percussionist Trần Xuân Hòa. The result was not pleasing. The exotic arrangements drowned out her singing. In her third recording, Hạ Huyền 2, she and her arranger Thanh Phương wisely return to the minimalist setting.

Recognizing that Giang Trang has an effortless style of singing that is best placed in an intimate atmosphere, Thanh Phương backs her voice with his own acoustic guitar. Although his accompaniment alone can create a musical dialog between the vocalist and the guitarist, he incorporates a few voices into the conversation. With Vân Mai on the Vietnamese 16-string zither, Lê Thư Hương on the flute and Trọng Kiều on the piano, their playing enhances rather than distracts the whole experience.

To hear how these instruments come together, listen to “Nhìn Những Mùa Thu Đi.” The zither starts off with a beautiful folk tradition. The guitar picks up the vibe and the flute joins in to create a zen setting. All the instruments drop out to focus on Giang Trang’s singing. The guitar alone returns to back the vocals. When Giang Trang gets through the song the first time, the guitar takes over the solo with the keyboard comes in. The keyboard stays on and the guitar plays an ostinato pattern as the vocal returns. After the vocal naked vocal faded out at the end, all the instruments join force to take the tune out.

The entire album is orchestrated in similar fashion; therefore, the experience is coherent, but never boring. What makes the arrangements so intriguing is that they never reveal the original melody because they don’t have to. The ballads are already too familiar and Giang Trang sings them straight on. As I am listening to record, I can’t help but wonder what if she takes Billie Holiday’s approach and deviates away from Trinh’s melody completely? That would be the art of reinterpretation.

Thanh Hà – Đến Bên Anh

Thanh Hà’s Đến Bên Anh is neither groundbreaking nor cohesive. Her delivery is straightforward and her song choice is all over the map. What makes the album enjoyable, however, is the productions.

Most of the arrangements come from Roland Casiquin Jr., her lover. Unlike Thúy Nga’s typical producers, Casiquin brings some fresh vibes to the table. The title track, for example, is groovy as hell with uptempo rhythm made up of energetic percussions, sweet keyboard comps, and slick guitar riffs. With “Anh Muốn Em Sống Sao” (Chi Dân), he wisely turns up the base drum to drown out Chi Dân’s cheeseball lyrics. Thanh Hà is also smart enough to make it less campy than drama queen Minh Tuyết.

Casiquin’s guitar chops and dance production skill are displayed on “Huyền Thoại Người Con Gái” (Lê Hựu Hà), but the best track on the album goes to Minh Hoàng. His string arrangement and bossa nova flavor make “Xóm Đêm” (Phạm Đình Chương) so damn hypnotizing. Thanh Hà’s alto is also so fine and sexy floating along the swaying rhythm. Although I don’t mind her youthful pop covers, I would rather hear her taking on the more mature level.

SNDDC Conference

The SNDDC’s two-day conference, “The Future of News Design,” was informative and inspiring. Although journalism is not my field, I have always interested in the news space. It was such an eye-opening experience to see how these news organizations including The Guardian, NPR, The New York Times, and The Quartz stepping up their digital game. Vox and Breaking News have embraced the digital space from the start; therefore, it was intriguing to see where they are heading in the future. Many problems they have solved could easily apply to higher education. I was so glad to be at the event and had a two-minute talk with one of my design heroes: Jason Santa Maria.

SNDDC’s News Type Session

The first day of the Society for News Design’s workshop in DC is impressive. The News Type session was filled with exceptional presentations from respected type designers and typographers such as Roger Black, Christian Schwartz, David Berlow, and Indra Kupferschmid. Francesco Franchi showed off the amazing work he and his team had done for the printed IL magazine. Greg Manifold shared the redesigns of the printed edition of The Washington Post and Dan Zedek gave some insights on The Boston Globe’s digital experience. The News Type session alone is worth the price of the admission, which is quite cheap for educators. I can’t wait to attend the next two days.

Designing for Performance

Lara Callender Hogan’s book is concise and yet packed with useful information on web performance. From images to CSS to JavaScript to gzip to caching, Hogan’s writing is accessible to even non-coders because she knows that performance is everyone’s responsibility, not just the front-end developers. Read it and share it with your team—even your boss can benefit on changing the culture at your organization—if you want to provide your visitors a faster experience.

Quốc Thiên – Tình Khúc Một Thời

I damn near overlooked Quốc Thiên’s Tình Khúc Một Thời when the album first hit streaming web sites late last year. Quốc Thiên is a new face with a warm baritone and sincere delivery. For his debut, he chooses a rather safe approach: covering standards. The album kicks off with a gentle, Latin-inflected version of “Nếu Xa Nhau,” a Đức Huy’s ballad. The second track, “Chiếc Lá Mùa Đông,” a duet with Uyên Linh, is disappointing. While their vocal chemistry blended well, their Chinese-translated song choice, is such a letdown. I didn’t make it past the third track, “Tình Như Lá Bay Xa,” which is another Chinese ballad.

A few days ago I copped the entire high-quality album and decided to give it another try. Without the Internet streaming interruption, the album comes to life. Standout is the bluesy rendition of Quốc Dũng’s “Em Đã Thấy Mùa Xuân Chưa.” The blues-turn-valse arrangement is hypnotizing. The strip-down version of “Tiếng Mưa Đêm” (Đức Huy) is refreshing. The strumming guitar, the brushing percussion, the thumping bass, and the accenting piano work their magic to accompany the vocals. In addition, Trịnh Nam Sơn’s “Quên Đi Tình Yêu Cũ” gets an elegant bossa nova makeover.

If Quốc Thiên were to focus Tình Khúc Một Thời on the jazz side, he could have created a sensational experience. Too bad the album is wasted with sugary, Chinese-translated ballads. He definitely has potentials. He just needed an executive producer to guide him to the right direction.