Julian Le has traveled the world playing music and is known for intertwining jazz with hip hop. Le, who started playing the piano at the age of three, studied at UCLA on a full jazz studies scholarship under jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, among many other legendary musicians in the industry. Some hip-hop artists that Le has worked with include Jonathan Park (Dumbfoundead), Elzhi of Slum Village, Ahmad Jones from 4th Ave. Jones, Alecoy Pete (Mic Holden) and Brandon Anderson (Breezy Lovejoy), among manyothers. Le spoke to Reign Media Group about his life as an artist and his music career. He recently wrapped up touring with Jhene Aiko, who was at the time opening up for Lauryn Hill and Nas.
Reign Media Group: What was it like touring and opening for Lauryn Hill and Nas with Jhene Aiko?
Julian Le: That was definitely one of the best experiences I have had in my music career. It was definitely the most high profile gig or tour I’ve done, so that was a good introduction to that side of the music industry. I had been listening to both of them since middle school and to finally open for them and meet them in person was unreal. On top of that, to be able to play with an artist as unique and talented as Jhene Aiko was also a dream come true. I feel like she is one of the few artists in the mainstream industry that is really sticking to her sound.
RMG: You’ve been playing the piano since you were three. Do you play any other instruments and if so, how did you come to want to learn them? How long have you been playing those?
JL: My dad taught me Sao Truc (Vietnamese Bamboo Flute) and Dan Bau (Vietnamese monochord) when I was a kid. I always really enjoyed listening to him play so one day he decided to show me the ropes on both instruments. I started gravitating more towards the flute. It is an instrument that has a large range in dynamics as well. The lower ranges are warm while the higher ranges have a very piercing powerful sound. We also lived in Vietnam for a year when I was eight years old so when I was there, we didn’t have a piano. My main instrument became the Sao Truc even after we came back to the U.S. and I didn’t play piano for around three years. I was still focused on the Sao Truc. From there I learned the Chinese version of the flute as well known as the Dizi. I still play it to maintain my chops. However, lately I have been practicing more and will actually be using it for a performance in Montana with Aditya Prakash. Other than that, I like to mess around on the electric bass and drums.
RMG: Who would you say are major influences in the industry for you?
JL: My mom and dad, my UCLA professors James Newton and Kenny Burrell, Aditya Prakash, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Taraf de Haidouks, Django, J-Dilla, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Sam Rivers, Gerald Clayton, Vijay Iyer, Taylor Eigsti, Chris Dave, Robert Glasper, Tigran Hamasyan, Debussy, Ravel, Chopin, DJ Qbert, Dirty Projectors, Flying Lotus, Kanye West, Tye Tribbett, Shafiq Husayn, Hudson Mohawke, Erykah Badu, Tribe, 2pac, I could go on for days. The list is endless.
RMG: What are you currently working on? What does the current year look like in terms of any new albums or tours?
JL: I am mainly involved with my own groups, the LeJTrio and LeJKeys Collective, Aditya Prakash Ensemble (APE), and Jhene Aiko. APE has a show at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles on March 26th… I am also recording a live performance music video at Ken Barrientos’s studio this month. It will mainly feature Mic Holden on the raps and LeJkeys Collective backing him up. I am also currently in the middle of recording my acoustic album “Puzzle Pieces” with Colin Mcdaniel on drums and Owen Clapp on bass. The album will also feature some other amazing musicians, my mom (Minh Ngo) and dad (Chan Le) on viola and piano, Aditya Prakash and Kana Shimanuki on vocals, and Jonah Levine on trombone. There will be an album release show in Los Angeles and possibly in northern California. The album should be done by late April. Other than that, I am constantly gigging with many artists and musicians in the area.
RMG: Tell me about how LeJKeys formed. How did you meet the members?
JL: LeJKeys is just a name I use for myself. Some of my friends in high school used to call me Le J so that’s how that happened. Le (Pronounced Lay) is my last name, J is my first initial. The members of the LeJKeys collective are musicians I like to play with. Most of them are good friends as well. The group changes for each show based on the sound I want to go for and sometimes the scheduling just doesn’t work out.
RMG: You went to UCLA, what did you major in and how would you say your education has shaped how you are as an artist?
JL: I was a Jazz Studies major with an emphasis in Jazz Piano Performance. Professor James Newton was a great mentor for me throughout my stay at UCLA. He really helped me see music in different ways. I always learned something very valuable with each and every class and conversation I had with him. Having Kenny Burrell around was absolutely great as well. He also shared wisdom that could only be learned through years and years of experience. Being in the presence of two legends made my stay more than worthwhile. Also, the different “world” music ensembles served as a constant reminder that the Western music system is not the only music system. The Indian music culture was the most appealing to me out of the large variety of “world” music topics offered at UCLA. Thanks to Abhiman Kaushal, the tabla teacher, and my friend Aditya Prakash who is an amazing Indian vocalist, I was able to use a lot of what I learned from them and apply it to my playing and compositions. Every music culture that I was exposed to had something that I could apply to my musicianship.
RMG: You’ve traveled the world extensively within the past few years playing in different countries. If you could tour any part of the world, where would it be and why?
JL: Anywhere in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, or Australia because there are still lots of countries in those areas I have not been to.
RMG: What are three tips that you have for aspiring musicians?
1) Work very hard at your craft but don’t forget about the simple pleasures in life. (That includes) being with your family and friends, finding great food, chasing girls, going to the beach, etc. At the same time, you have to be very honest with yourself when things don’t seem to be going well. You have to constantly ask yourself and answer truthfully “How hard am I actually working? Am I practicing enough?” I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It’s all about finding a balance.
2) Find your own sound or something that people will recognize you for. For me, the ultimate compliment is when someone listens to a recording or is passing by a venue I’m playing at, and says “…that’s definitely Julian.” Even if they think it sounds bad, at least I still have my sound (laughs).
3) Listen.Don’t be in your own world when you are playing with a group.
RMG: What would you say are three common “myths” about the music industry that people believe?
JL: I guess these might be considered myths, but I’m not really sure.
1) Musicians don’t work hard because it’s not a 9-5 job.
2) You’re only legit if you’re signed to a label.
3) Musicians are all drunks or drug addicts.
RMG: What’s your favorite venue to play in Los Angeles and why?
JL: For jazz, the Blue Whale owned by Joon Lee wins hands down. Not only is it my favorite place to perform, it is also my favorite place to watch some of the best musicians go HAM. The manager appreciates good music, he’s very respectful and the vibe at the venue is always great and real intimate. That is very hard to find in LA. You’re also not getting harassed to reach a drink minimum every 5 minutes because there is none! Other than that, the Wiltern was definitely a lot of fun.
RMG: Where do you see yourself and your career in 5 years?
JL: Seeing the world and playing music. If I stumble upon a fortune, I’m opening a tapas bar with live music as well.
RMG: What would you say is the hardest part about being an aspiring musician?
JL: Staying motivated and being patient can be hard too because the process of getting into the scene can be very slow. I still feel like im trying to break in haha. Climbing out of your musical slumps when you feel like your playing is not getting any better.
RMG: Have you ever considered an alternative career? If you had to choose one, what would it be and why?
JL: Not really… But I guess I would try and take Anthony Bourdain’s job or any of those people on the travel channel that get to go to cool places and eat delicious food all the time.
RMG: What would you say has been your “high point” so far in your career and how did you feel when you realized it was a reality.
JL: My brief interaction with Herbie Hancock was definitely life changing. The combination of finishing my compositions for the new album and going on the Nas, MsHil, and JheneAiko tour was definitely a “high point” as well. But honestly, any day where I feel like I’ve found a balance between working on my music, paying the bills, practicing, playing for other artists, spending quality time with my family and friends, and just enjoying life, is a “high point” for me.