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Interviews

Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

By Published: August 8, 2011
AAJ: It's not just music; if you don't work your ass off in any walk of life you don't get anywhere, and we all have to do things sometimes that we'd rather not be doing.



CV: Yeah, yeah. I had a meeting with a student, who requested the meeting so that I could help him figure out what he's going to do with his education and career path afterwards. I said, "You should just worry about being a better musician right now. All that stuff you'll explore later." And I asked him, "How much do you practice every day?" and he said one hour [laughs]. I just looked at him and I was thinking you have no chance. I still practice four hours a day and you're going to tell me you just practice one hour a day and hope to succeed? There's no chance. How are you going to work hard at anything if you can't even put in the time to work on something that you supposedly love?

AAJ: Coming back to your music, earlier this year you released Leaps of Faith which might very well be one of your best ever recordings, but on this album you do something quite unusual for you by taking on four jazz standards—given the Cuong Vu treatment—but nevertheless four standards; why did you decide to interpret jazz standards after fifteen years of doing your own thing?



CV: I didn't want to do standards before because I felt like a total fake whenever I would play standards. I felt that all that I did was pretty much do things just the way it's been done, over and over and over again. There was really no improvisation unless you consider connecting the dots, improvisation. It was just piecing together what I'd learned by rote and piecing together what I knew would work, and everything came from the idea of "the tradition" which seems to have very little to do with real tradition but rather just copying and stealing what's been done. For me that was being a complete fake. I'd rather figure out what I can offer that's more original. Not completely original, because I don't know that anybody can be completely original, but at least I tried to put something out that wouldn't sound like it does without my participation. So what happened was that after all this time, I felt that the musical approach that my band and I had been working on for so long had become something developed, strong and personalized enough that we could apply it to standards and really put our stamp on those tunes. And one of the reasons I even thought about playing standards was that I got this job as a Professor and I was like, "Oh man, I've got to check this stuff out again to make sure I know it so I can teach it" [laughs].

When I played with Pat, the situation required the types of skills to deal with time and harmony the way he wanted, so I had to go back and re-examine the jazz tradition more thoroughly. I used jazz standards as my working template because they are a really good source of harmony and melody and form, as well as a good working space to work on specific details and approaches. And the skill it takes to be able to navigate those things at a high musical level is a really disciplined process. So I started re-examining them back then and as I became more comfortable again, my peculiar way of doing things and what I'd developed musically began to seep through. I wanted to try it with the band and see how we would tackle it.

AAJ: One of the most striking aspects of the music is the use of two bassists with Luke Bergman alongside Stomu Takeishi; had you heard two basses in your head for a long time while you were composing or did it suddenly spring up as an idea that might be exciting to implement?

CV: Pretty early on when I started working with Stomu in my own groups, that was back in '99 or '00, I had the idea of using two bass players because of the way Stomu plays. He really occupies a wide range and I wanted another bassist to take care of the bass role so that he could be freed up to do even more of the sonic, soundscaping stuff that we were both doing and discovering together. We've always wanted to do that but we'd never found anyone who could just get in there and tackle the music the way we were approaching it. The thing is, there were people who could do it, but established players, 99.99% of the time, don't want to be told what to do and they don't want to be taught. But Stomu and I are different that way, in that we want to learn. We want people to tell us how to approach their music so we feel like we should be free to do the same with our music. With Luke, because he was one of my students, he was eager and willing to come into my world and work on my conceptual approach. So, when I started to play with him and everything had worked really well, I wanted to try having him in there with Stomu, and it worked out beautifully, because he understands what we're going for.

AAJ: Did it click quite quickly?

CV: It actually took a lot longer than I thought. At first, Luke was being too careful trying to fit in as opposed to just putting his stuff out there, which is what I wanted. So that took a little time. With Stomu, because he had been engaged in his approach to our music for over ten years now where he was taking care of all of the business of simultaneously working the bass and support roles while providing a ton of textural sound and contrapuntal lines. To ask him to suddenly let go of an aspect of what he'd developed into a homogenized and integrated whole was really difficult for him. He also needed time to realize that I wasn't bringing in someone to necessarily fill in some holes by doing what he couldn't do. I was instead, bringing someone in to free him up to go into those territories that he couldn't fully commit to because of the extensive multitasking that he had been undertaking. Once he made that connection and once Luke asserted his own approach, everything jelled and really took off.


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