Cuong Vu: More Than Just Notes
After moving to New York in 1994, his sound quickly found a home with veterans like drummer Gerry Hemingway and pianist Myra Melford; contemporaries like saxophonist Chris Speed and keyboardist Jamie Saft and legends like Laurie Anderson and guitarist Pat Metheny. He's also led or co-led a half-dozen CDs that reveal his aesthetic: broad, arcing melodies to launch challenging improvisational frameworks.
"I've become a much better player, actually, in the last year-and-a-half; faster than at any point in my development," Vu says. In that time, he moved back to Seattle and the change allowed him to develop his compositions, reduce sideman gigs and focus on practicing. Coming just after gaining wider public recognition with Metheny and the success of his CD It's Mostly Residual (ArtistShare, 2005), the move's timing may seem odd, but it's just his latest paradox.
Vu was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1969 and immigrated to Seattle when he was six. Music filled his childhood: his mother was a budding pop star in Vietnam and his father played a variety of instruments. When he was five, inspired by seeing his dad play saxophone, Vu asked for one, but his mother bought a trumpet instead. Though he didn't like it, he continued playing, rapidly developing facility on the instrument.
"I knew those solos back and forth and could sing every pitch," he says referring to trumpeter Clifford Brown's The Beginning and the End (Columbia, 1952). He gravitated to the rock and pop music of the early '80s, as well as the fusion of Weather Report, the Brecker Brothers and guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern. Anything "that had good beats and ripping guitar solos," he jokes. These atypical influences permeate and set Vu's music apart, particularly his interest in strong melodies.
Earning a scholarship to New England Conservatory, Vu was confronted with the stark dichotomy of pursuing classical or jazz, neither of which was exactly what he wanted. He studied theory and listened to the seminal jazz records, but grew tired of playing straight-ahead. He even contemplated quitting music. But a meeting with saxophonist Joe Maneri convinced Vu that there were other possibilities.
"It's kind of like a door to a whole universe opened up and I felt so excited about everything. And it was so fresh and fun," Vu remembers. He listened to more 20th Century classical music, immersed himself in avant-garde jazz and started to push his playing past the trumpet's limitations. "I think that when you start going into the avant-garde and free playing, a huge part of that is just finding different vocabularies and dealing with sound and textures a lot more than just notes."
Vu played with like-minded musicians, including fellow Seattle-area ex-pats Speed and saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo, who encouraged his creativity. In New York, these associations blossomed, with Vu and D'Angelo an integral part of drummer Bobby Previte's Too Close to the Pole, (Enja, 1996) which also included Saft. The keyboardist rejoined Vu for his 2000 leader debut Bound (OmniTone), which highlighted song-like forms coupled with rhythmic complexity. It also added another critical link in his music's development: electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, who has since appeared on all of Vu's albums.
The two developed a strong musical bond, first in a trio with drummer John Hollenbeck, which recorded two CDs and currently in a trio with drummer Ted Poor. "I feel like we have a very strong language, which I only have with a few musicians in my life," says Takeishi. "I play with a lot of great musicians, but only a few let me develop the language together, equally."
Vu stresses that sense of collectivity and says the trio's approach is often like a rock band, not leader-driven. Having grown up on guitar music, Vu heard these sounds as he composed and asked guitarist Bill Frisell to join the trio for 2005's It's Mostly Residual. It boasted quirky ensemble passages, strong counterpoints and guided improvisations. When performing the music without Frisell, Takeishi assumes the guitar's role, adding distortion to his sound and opening new avenues for the trio.
"The live thing is really powerful," Vu says. "They [the audience] don't have to think about it, they can just feel it." With Takeishi holding the bottom and playing some leads and counterpoint, their music can be unusual, but still approachable. "People just need to be more exposed to different sounds," Vu says.
Exposure to a different audience was part of Vu's motivation for joining the Pat Metheny Group in 2002 for two CDs and tours. Though a fan of his music, Vu wasn't sure he would fit in, having rejected that kind of straight-ahead playing. But Metheny sensed a connection. Not wanting to embarrass himself or the group, Vu spent hours every day on tour practicing those techniques and styles again, taking ownership of them.
Though there hasn't been much audience crossover, touring with Metheny opened Vu's eyes to the dwindling support and declining audiences for jazz, even for an artist of his renown. Back in NYC, venues were disappearing and Vu hadn't been playing many gigs as a leader. Ultimately, he moved back west.
Since then, he's started teaching at the University of Washington. Somewhat ironically, given his rebelliousness, Vu stresses basics so that his students have strong foundations for building their sound. He's impressed with their openness and hopes to foster a creative music scene there.
His new CD, Vu-Tet, was released in early 2008 on the ArtistShare label. This time, the trio was joined by Speed. The two developed an affinity over the years in Speed's yeah NO group and their complementary and sympathetic unison lines propel the music. For now, these projects are enough for Vu, who prefers to work with the same tight-knit unit, rather than constantly changing groups. Re-energized and focused, Vu muses, "I'm working so hard, I'm still growing."
Cuong Vu, Vu-Tet (ArtistShare, 2007)
Cuong Vu, It's Mostly Residual (ArtistShare, 2005)
Chris Speed's yeah NO, Swell Henry (Squealer, 2004)
Cuong Vu, This, This and That (Pure/Come and Play with Me) (Knitting Factory/ArtistShare, 2000-1)
Cuong Vu, Bound (OmniTone, 1999)
Jamie Saft/Cuong Vu, Ragged Jack (Avant, 1995)
Top Photo: Valerie Trucchia (©2000)
Bottom Photo: Frank Rubolino