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Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

By Published: August 8, 2011
AAJ: "Old Heap," by drummer Evan Woodle, seems to have a lot of your DNA in its heavy minimalism; did you have a significant hand in putting that together?

Speak: from left: Andrew Swanson, Luke Bergman, Chris Icasiano, Aaron Otheim, Cuong Vu

CV: In terms of what you hear from the piece, that just comes from how I approached his melody. I'm not sure if his writing process is that influenced by what I do, though probably the only compositions he's done have been in my classes where I have students compose and help them with the compositions. But I can't take credit for that. I don't really know where it's coming from. I have the main melody so the way I play it is going to have a big influence on how it sounds. On the improv that's just what we do. And with Luke and Evan having studied free improvisation with me, I could say that my approach flows through them.

AAJ: Is this a working band? Are you guys gigging much around Seattle?

CV: Outside of New York, and even in New York, I felt with my groups that I couldn't over-saturate; I couldn't play gigs all the time and expect people to come and see us all the time. I would pace the gigs and play every three to six months with my own groups. A working band to me is a band that's touring all over the place, and we're not doing that. I knew that once the record was out that I wasn't going to be able to leave home because of what's going on with the baby and stuff.

So, I don't really want to leave on any extensive tour for a while. I kind of want to work on records and not worry so much about touring, unless the opportunities that pop up are really good. I don't want to feel the dread of having to go through airport security and sit on tiny seat on a plane for hours and hours or sit in a cramped car for hours and hours and show up at some two-bit hotel. This is what touring feels like to me. It's like the thrill of it has gone, and it's going to take something different to get it back. It's got to be a lot better to make me want to hit the road these days. I guess the Pat Metheny Group approach to cushy touring messed me up and turned me into a princess [laughs]. Seriously, it doesn't have to be that good, but it's got to at least make it okay for me to leave my home.

AAJ: You're in a relatively fortunate position where you have a job as a Professor in a university jazz program, but what do you tell your students when getting gigs as a professional jazz musician seems to be so difficult everywhere?

CV: I think young people have to realize that the chances of making a living doing exactly what they want to do are slim. It's going to come down to working their asses off, and even then it might not offer them that. They're going to have to do things they don't want to do. I think I'm an extreme; there are musicians like Stomu or Ted, who will do a wider range of gigs, and they can make it fun, or a great learning experience, and they're happy doing it. But if I'm in some of those contexts I would just be pissed [laughs] and no one would enjoy me in the group anyway. Young people can do that kind of stuff and piece together some money. A lot of people are going to have to teach and play general business functions to make ends meet, and maybe a number of them will have to be baristas for a while.

I had part-time day gigs until a few months before Metheny asked me to join his band. A lot of musicians I know have to work a day gig to make ends meet. That's going to be a part of their reality. But to be uncompromising in putting their music out there and make a living out of it, it's going to come down to getting in the trenches and just working hard. For me, I can't be sleeping on floors or suffer through some twelve-hour train ride with six changes just to get to a gig and play for thirty people. I can't do that anymore. But at their age they should play every gig they can. They should sleep on floors, they should get into a van and they should stink it up...they're at an age where they can do that without suffering and so they should.

Pat Metheny still believes that if you pay your dues, meaning you take care of the music, making it stellar, then you all get into a van and go play for those two people in that coffee shop twelve hundred miles away and then drive twelve hundred miles back and do another gig for two people, at some point things will break and you'll succeed. I'm exaggerating, but that's only to underscore how hard it is and how much dedication, discipline and sacrifice it takes. At that age though, these sacrifices seem small and insignificant. That's what I'm trying to get the students to realize, and understand what they're getting into. If they want it that bad, they can have it if they work their asses off. We chose to play music because we just have to eat, live and play music. We don't do this for the sake of making money. Everybody should know that.

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