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Interviews

Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

By Published: August 8, 2011
AAJ: The album title, Leaps of Faith, clearly refers to the challenge for some of the audience listening to standards in this new light, but it maybe also refers to a leap of faith for Takeishi, and perhaps even for Bergman coming into a long-established group and that of his teacher besides, which must be quite daunting; was there a leap of faith for you as well in some respects?


From left: Stomu Takeishi, Cuong Vu, Ted Poor

CV: Yeah, absolutely. The title addresses different things. First of all, I didn't know if this approach would work. I didn't know if we'd be able to address the standards in a way that would make sense to the people who are fans of standards. Once you start doing standards an element of the jazz audience starts getting all snooty about tradition and I just had to let go of that fear and have faith in myself that whatever it is we do, if it resonates with me, it's going to be worthwhile. It's not going to be bullshit. Then another aspect was that I wasn't sure that we could marry the concepts of playing free within the specific harmonic content and forms of those standards, and not sound like we're playing it by rote and just following what's been done, using the established roles. I wasn't sure. So, it took some faith.

AAJ: Did you toy with the idea of bringing in a guitar instead of a second bassist? That worked beautifully on It's Mostly Residual (Cuong Vu, 2005) with Bill Frisell. Were you tempted to go in that direction again?

CV: Probably not. I've always heard guitar in what I do because I grew up with rock music. I like that record with Frisell a lot and I think that is my favorite record. He, being one of my heroes and bringing in that element that I grew up on and it was just amazing how the record came together. But I feel like Stomu is already taking care of a lot of those things, so it's almost redundant. If I really want to showcase Stomu in what he offers that I love most, and having a guitarist is going to take up a lot of that space. It would be more likely that I do a record with a guitarist if he's [Stomu] not going to be on it.

AAJ: The influence of trumpeter Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
is often mentioned by critics and reviewers when talking about your sound, but is Frisell perhaps a bigger influence on you?

CV: Yeah, I think he's had a much bigger impact on what I do than Miles did. It's weird because if you study and play jazz there is no way to escape Miles' influence. I think it's a lack of effort and imagination when people peg me as being influenced by Miles. Who isn't influenced by Miles? Then trying to tie me even closer into Miles simply because I play the trumpet is kind of absurd; it's like saying this white basketball player plays like Larry Bird. As soon as I put effects on people are like "Oh, Miles Davis, Bitches Brew [Columbia, 1970] I listened to it a couple of times and it wasn't appealing to me. Miles Davis in the '60s? Yes, but not Bitches Brew. [Trumpeter] Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
is a much bigger influence on me but nobody talks about Clifford Brown. So it's just laziness on their part for not looking past the superficial to find the real connections.

With Frisell, when I got to college was when I started listening to his music. It was a completely different sound that was so overwhelming and felt so new. He made a huge impression on me. His works were huge for me, just like Beethoven has been or Stravinsky has been. Frisell's music was like, "Oh my God!" It's one of those things you have to listen to every day all day. He was definitely one of the guys. Before him, Pat was a huge influence. I listened to his music every day.

AAJ: On Leaps of Faith you reappraise a couple of you oldest compositions, "I Shall Never Come Back" and "Child-Like (for Vina)"; did you feel you had unfinished business with these tunes or did they just lend themselves well to the overall concept and sound of Leaps of Faith?

CV: I wanted to document how that material had developed over time on tour with Ted [Poor] in the band. Those tunes were recorded with [drummer]John Hollenbeck
John Hollenbeck
John Hollenbeck
b.1968
drums
. I wanted people to hear how the music had changed since we first played them and also how Ted approaches them. Those pieces were off the first trio record where I felt like I was actually stepping into territory that was simultaneously really new to me but also sort of tailored for me. It was a space where I was really becoming my own person, so it felt right to have those pieces juxtaposed with me trying to present a record that says here, look, I'm going to play standards but I'm going to reinvent them within this personalized and developed approached.

AAJ: Coming back to Speak , you've talked about Luke, could you give us a rundown on the other musicians in the band?

CV: First, it's important for me and for the Speak guys that people know that they are no longer my students and haven't been for over three years. They have become their own people with their own approaches. They're amazing musicians and I look at them more as young peers and not as students. When we recorded that record they were a couple of years removed from being in school. All those guys are fantastic musicians and I really enjoy playing with them. They can be...they should be part of the conversation when people talk about musicians who firstly, are bad-ass mother fuckers, but who are also contributing to the jazz cannon and pushing it forward. There are a few people out here who are doing this and who are working hard and I hope they get their due. I wish I'd had the skills that they have at that age, in terms of already having a mature concept and approach to their own music; they've developed so much further than I had when I was their age. I think if they were living in New York they would be working and people would be talking about them.


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