When Vietnamese-born/American-raised trumpeter Cuong Vu was recruited by the Pat Metheny Group in 2001, Vu was a complete unknown to most fans of the guitar icon. In truth, however, Vu had already been quite active. Since moving to New York in 1994, Vu has become an increasingly visible presence on the downtown New York scene, working with forward-thinking artists including Bobby Previte and Dave Douglas. His work with singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith also demonstrated a penchant for song that may not have been evident on albums like Douglas' Sanctuary (Avant, 1997).
By the time Metheny enlisted him, Vu had already released a number of records under his own name, in particular two Knitting Factory discs, Pure (2000) and Come Play With Me (2001), featuring his working trio with electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer John Hollenbeck. These two records are now sadly out of print. Fortunately Vu has acquired the rights to both, combining two tracks from Pure and four from Come Play With Me to create This This and That. Many listeners had their first exposure to Vu's blend of deep lyricism, pulsing rhythms, and avant-garde edge through his latest release, the outstanding It's Mostly Residual (ArtistShare, 2005). However, This This and That demonstrates how Vu's vision, certainly best represented on It's Mostly Residual, is less a major leap forward than a gradual evolution.
Vu's compositions bear an inexorable logic, though they rarely unfold the way one might expect. "Faith begins with a tribal drum rhythm from Hollenbeck and syncopated bass lines from Takeishi, suggesting harmonic shifts over which Vu layers his lyrical theme. Its acoustic nature begins to gradually shift towards a more processed treatment, first with Vu adding stereo-panned delay, augmenting some raspy extended techniques that shift gears towards a more textural direction. Takeishi begins applying a looping and reverse attack processing to his bass, while Hollenbeck remains the only constant. In creating an increasingly dense soundscape without overdubs, Vu and Takeishi seamlessly integrate sound processing to create a space that's evocative and demanding of one's attention, despite its almost hypnotic nature.
"Dreams, Come Play With Me begins more abstractly, with Vu's simple melody emerging from a dark cacophony of sound around the two-minute mark. But even then things aren't as they seem. "Vina's Lullaby finds Vu's rubato melody instigating an ethereal shuffle where his pop sensibility is in clear evidence, despite an unsettling feeling of displacement.
Vu possesses admirable technique, but he rarely puts it front and center, although it surfaces on his elliptical, rapid-fire intro to "Again and Again and Again, which also evidences his capacity for subtly complex composition.
For those who came to Vu through the Pat Metheny Group, It's Mostly Residual is essential listening, demonstrating those qualities that Metheny felt intrinsic to where he wanted his group to go next. This This and That is equally essential in showing Vu's rapid evolution into a distinct voiceone which deserves to be heard by a wider audience.
Note: this recording is available from Cuong Vu on the web.
Personnel: Cuong Vu: trumpet; Stomu Takeishi: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums.