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Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

Ian Patterson By

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New York may be the major incubator for all that's best in American jazz but there are healthy signs that vibrant scenes are emerging in other cities. Long-term New York-resident, alto saxophonist David Binney recently expressed a desire to spend more time in the jazz scene in Los Angeles, where he says: "there's something really happening." Further north, in Seattle, there's something going on too; an exciting scene is developing around a core of young musicians who see the jazz tradition not as one of emulation, but as essentially one of innovation and progress. The emergence of so many like-minded, forward-thinking jazz musicians in Seattle has much to do with the influence and guiding hand of trumpeter Cuong Vu. At the end of 2006, after a dozen years in New York establishing his reputation as an innovative, uncompromising modernist—a wholly original voice—Vu opted to return to his native Seattle in pursuit of a better quality of life, and inevitably, new challenges followed.

The move has been an invigorating one, not only for Vu, but for the jazz and creative music scene there. As Assistant Professor of Jazz at the University of Washington for the past four years or so, Vu has shaken up the formerly conservative program and inspired the young student body to fully explore their creative possibilities, as composers and as improvisers. The quartet Speak—all former students of the jazz program—features Vu as guest musician on its self-titled debut recording, and is an exciting example of the numerous groups that have flourished in this environment. Agogic, a hard-hitting quartet featuring Vu, is another. The electric bassist in both these bands is Luke Bergman, whom Vu added to his long-standing trio to record the stunning live album Leaps of Faith (Origin, 2011). Bergman is one of the most prominent figures in the modern Seattle jazz scene, but there are many more highly talented musicians who seem destined to gain wider exposure.

Although Vu is something of a fulcrum for the new movement it has already gathered its own momentum, having established a record label, Table and Chairs Music, and a performance space, Café Racer, which removes the barrier between audience and performers. "The scene is still small compared to New York" says Vu, "but pound per pound it's as creative and concentrated." These are exciting times for jazz in Seattle, once home to guitarist Jimi Hendrix, currently home to another guitar innovator, Bill Frisell, and home and laboratory to an equally arresting musical voice, Cuong Vu.

AAJ: Why did you decide to leave New York, where you had made a name for yourself after more than a decade?

CV: Making a name for myself didn't quite give me some of the things that I want in life. I was never really comfortable on the east coast, first of all. I went to school in Boston and then I moved to New York and during that entire span the quality of life was not as good living in those places as it is back here. I'd come back to visit and saw how well friends and family members my age had done, and was like, man you can't get this in New York unless you're wealthy. Not only that, but every time I came back to visit Seattle I could smell the air the way it's supposed to smell. The mountains and water surrounded us and it wouldn't take more than a 20-minute drive to get to them and be completely away from all things city-like. It was infinitely cleaner, looked and smelled better.

One evening, after hanging with [guitarist Bill] Frisell on Bainbridge Island, I took a 20-minute ferry ride back to Seattle proper and just the view made me think, "Why the hell did I leave?" Of course, I left for music and I got some amazing experiences and learned a ton from what New York had to offer, but after a while I just got tired of the same thing over and over and over. And though the energy of the city was incredible and generated such great things, I felt crowded and grew tired of the frantic energy. Everything was a challenge. Even getting out of the city to go to the country was a big pain in the ass. Once I turned thirty-something I started thinking that I had to figure out what I was going to do when I got old and couldn't stay out on the road. I mean, how would I be able to sustain it?

When I got the gig with [guitarist] Pat Metheny all the signs were pointing to my career really taking off, with lots of opportunities coming more easily to the forefront, without my having to do anything to compromise musically or artistically to make those business things happen. It didn't exactly work out that way, and soon after the first tour that I did with him, some of the Pat Metheny Group fans would come to my shows and afterwards I could see the look of "What the fuck?" on their faces. Some even actually came up to me to let me know that they didn't like what we were doing as much as what I did in the Pat Metheny Group. There were some Larry David moments for sure. I'm the kind of person that's uncompromising that way; I want to make music really how I hear it and not have to worry about the business or let that concern affect the music. I didn't play the business game the way it should be played to capitalize on the exposure that the Metheny gig afforded me.

It was a constant struggle. Like everyone else, I know you have to work really hard to have success, but after a while I realized that it wasn't really going where I wanted it to go. It wasn't going to get that much better, and by that I mean I wasn't going to be able to afford a decent health plan, or save up money for retirement and I wasn't going to have the healthier, more comfortable lifestyle that I wanted, living in New York. The struggle that I had with these issues came to a boil at a time in my mother's life when she just needed family around. It just kind of happened that everything lined up for me to move back and make it worthwhile.

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