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Cuong Vu: More Power in a Collective

By Published: September 5, 2005
AAJ: They've got those Cuong Vu melodies bookending the free material.

CV: Yeah. And even within some of the improvs I have some melodic material—whether it's bass line or background or something like that—that has something to do with the piece, to kind of help anchor it and help move it along without it getting too unintelligible.

AAJ: It's like you're a scientist, the way you present a melody and then, in the improv parts, take it apart. You do this on "It's Mostly Residual" or "Dreams Come Play With Me" from the Come Play With Me CD. Like a mechanic taking an engine apart and then putting it back together, although that's not very artistic-sounding.

CV: No, no, that sounds good; that's another way of saying it. It's also maybe being disciplined and then completely letting go. Like when you first meet somebody, you want to present yourself in a very positive light—and then maybe after you know them and you go out and have drinks and get drunk, then you let yourself say whatever the hell you want.

AAJ: I am obsessed with "Patchwork," the longest track on the CD. Its opening melody is about as jazzy as this album gets, but the tune goes through several different parts. I love how the parts morph into other sections; I know there's lots of improvisation and I think I can hear the players cueing each other to suggest the changes—like during your soloing towards the end, I hear Frisell play that four-note phrase [attempting to sing it] and you hear him and go into that. Then at the very end, during a bunch of loops and density, Stomu's playing a quiet, soloish part, at the end of which he reintroduces the central theme—again, you hear him and make the transition, go into that theme. Am I imagining this?

CV: No, that's key. That's a huge key to what we do. Maybe this is not a bookend; maybe this is a key to unlock the door. So they do their thing, or I'm doing my thing, and then I decide, okay, for my solo I just want to be able to go. And I say, "well, Bill, maybe Stomu and Ted will cue you by going into the groove again and it'll be really obvious and when they're in the groove, you play that aural cue, that little motif, and you'll open the door for me to come back in." I pretty much try to have these little keys lined up in places where I think we can get trapped, and then whoever is assigned to be the person to decide when things are getting dull and we need to move on—they'll take the key and open the door.

AAJ: I love stuff like that, actually. There's something exciting about hearing that on a recording, because you can't hear people playing in real time more than that—you can hear music happening.

CV: Yeah! And that's the thing: with the music and the way I work, I really depend on the sideguys and their tendencies and what they think is right—their pacing, what they think is good. Because if I call all the shots, a lot of times I'm not going to make the best decisions. Like I said, there's more power in a collective.

AAJ: I love Ted's drumming under Bill's solo part on "Patchwork." Adamant, crisp, with a definite dub feel. And Stomu's bass is heavier than metal on this tune.

CV: In the studio, while we were recording that, actually, at that point in the song— I was like, "damn! This is kind of like the Bill Frisell Trio. What am I doing here?" [laughter]

AAJ: It takes some nerve to invite that guy in. Let's talk about "Brittle, Like Twigs." It starts with a short groove, then has a boppish, nervous theme. I have a hard time counting the time there.

CV: Well, when I wrote that, I wasn't really thinking about meter. I was thinking of—well, you know that other tune on the CD, "Chitter Chatter"? [singing its theme] A lot of the material for the whole record is based on that. And that's in five, so I was basically just trying to work with that material in free time, kind of letting the gravity of the rhythms lead me to wherever it wanted to go. And then I went back and barred it where it made sense, and most of it came out in six, with maybe a bar of seven here and there. But the pattern is very five, which is the same as "Chitter Chatter." So the melody is kind of in five laid over six. But the bass line also comes from "Chitter Chatter" and it's basically three. So I'm playing with three and five.

AAJ: So "Brittle, Like Twigs" is a sort of brother to "Chitter Chatter."

CV: Yeah. All the songs [on the CD] are connected, some way or another. I tried to make it that way so it would be a sound. A record has a reason; every tune fits together, instead of just a collection of tunes.

AAJ: During the improv parts on "Brittle, Like Twigs,"—not to obsess on time, but the time gets very free, then during your solo, it seems to sort of reform itself—there's a contrast between formal time and timelessness.

CV: Do you mean sometimes you feel the time is clear and other times it's more abstract?

AAJ: Yes.

CV: Yeah, well, basically—it's pretty much in four. Even though I told them I didn't really want to feel any specific meter. A lot of times when we're playing free, I just want the phrases to happen and our collective mind will determine the points where "one" is. And you can go back, and calculate, and measure, and then find out the time signature, but that defeats the purpose—which is for us to improvise freely and find those pivot points where the time sounds strong, comes together, then changes and goes somewhere else. So I always want to start off free and then, eventually, when we lead into the material, then it starts to be more of a meter. In that one, Stomu has the bass figure, and that's kind of another aural cue that helps ground the music and also helps us get out of any pigeonholes of improv wank.

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