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.

AAJ: You took up a role as Assistant Professor of Jazz at Washington University, Seattle; what was the jazz program like when you first arrived and how has it developed in the four or five years since you've been there?

CV: It's a small, flexible and nimble program with between thirty to forty students each year and two full time professors in the jazz division supported by adjunct instructors. Before I got there, it was very conservative. There are always exceptions, but generally speaking, I don't think that most people outside of big metropolitan areas really strive for newness in their music. There are extremely few artists who shoot for innovation or dare to engage in music that's not easily accessible. In Seattle that was no different for the most part. Pretty much the only thing they were doing at the school was mainstream and straight-ahead.

Since I've been there, the kids have really gravitated to what I've brought to the table and the kind of music I want them to check out. They've especially responded to my encouragement to try and come up with their own music using their own language based on the kind of music they grew up on that moved them, even though they are technically majoring specifically in jazz or classical music. They just exploded with all this energy and excitement and out of that there's a community of young jazz musicians who are really pushing the jazz scene here and doing some really, really great work. The scene is still small compared to NY, but pound per pound it's as creative and concentrated.

Now we have a new Director of the School of Music, Richard Karpen, who is an amazing electro-acoustic contemporary composer and a fantastic improviser. He's completely supportive of the jazz program. He really wants to see us expand, so he's doing everything to support the growth of the program. We share a vision in morphing certain aspects of the Composition Division, the University Of Washington's Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media—which is the leading program of its kind in the world—and the Jazz Division into a whole new program with a new approach to music education. We aim to produce a new generation of musicians that are both serious composers and improvisers/performers, unlike what we've seen so far. Not that the crux of this idea is new, but there hasn't been a program fully capable of taking on that challenge. He [Karpen] and I believe that we can do this at the University of Washington.

AAJ: That all sounds extremely exciting. How do you see your role there; is it technical coaching, or is it more developing the student's attitude and approach to making music?

CV: It's everything. I want them to know the fundamentals and have skills, and know the history of jazz and how to address jazz in that context. But even if they ultimately decide that it isn't within their aesthetic to pursue innovation, it's crucial to me that they spend this time in their lives examining the innovations of the past and the innovators of the present and understand the importance of nurturing the music, and assisting in its continuing progress and evolution instead of resting on the successes of what's been done. Or should I emphasize, overdone? It's important to me, for instance, that they are looking towards the contemporary composers and contemporary music and music of all different cultures. And popular music, the music of our times, and try to make sense of it all and come up with their own stuff. So basically, I challenge them and I challenge their aesthetics. A lot of technical information that is concerned with fundamental skills is exchanged too; how to work on time, how to work on your ears in the most efficient but thorough way, examining the kind of music one wants to produce and what it's going to take to be a great musician and artist.

AAJ: How much of a challenge was it for you to go from an improvising, experimental musician's life in New York to a Professorship in Seattle teaching theory and discipline?

CV: It wasn't hard. It was pretty cool because Marc Seales, the Jazz Chair at the University of Washington, was really supportive and let me do whatever I wanted. I just dived in, head first, went with my intuition based on my experiences and just went for it full force. It's been one big experiment. Like the majority of antiquated college music programs, the music program was very dominated by concert band music and orchestral music and there wasn't really much support for jazz, but nobody stood in my way. The Jazz Chair told me to do whatever I thought would work. What made it work were the students being completely into it right away. Their energy really carried me and they pushed each other. The amount of growth that happened in the first couple of years was incredible, how much they expanded their knowledge, how open and hungry they were to newer ideas and how much they improved, which in turn positively affected the program itself. At this point it's become a thing that almost completely fuels itself. I still have to push and I still have to guide but we've created this environment where they are all supportive but also fiercely challenging each other. There's no mean-spirited competition; it's very competitive but at the same time it's very supportive.

AAJ: That must be very rewarding for you to have brought this turnaround.

CV: Yeah, completely. I'm especially happy about the environment, because some of the things I despised about the environment amongst students at the New England Conservatory and Berklee, along with the scenes in New York, at least in my own experience, was this kind of petty "you aren't good enough to hang with me," or "me first," fighting-for-crumbs-type-thing. People cannot do it alone and I really stress that, especially not in these times, what with the current trends of disinterest in the arts and in art music. We are truly living in the dark ages of our time in terms of the arts. These kids here are really into making something special together that is exponentially bigger than each of them.

Café Racer, in Seattle

AAJ: Let's talk about some of these kids as you refer to them, and I'd like to start by asking about your most recent recording, Agogic, which is a great album; where does the name come from?

CV: I started calling them "kids" facetiously and now it's stuck with me. Agogic...[saxophonist] Andrew D'Angelo came up with that name. Technically, I think it means a musical accent that is created by slowing down the tempo suddenly. It's also an accent that is created by a delayed onset of a note.

AAJ: How did this band come together?

CV: In my first year, the small ensemble that I was coaching at the University of Washington, which became Speak, had bassist Luke Bergman. I became a real fan of his band and his own music, and I always knew that he was the bassist I wanted to work with around here. In my first year at the University of Washington, Earshot Jazz and I put together a benefit for Andrew D'Angelo in Seattle when he had brain cancer, and I played with that band. Something happened on that gig where the band really came into its own. They really grew on stage during that performance. That was the very beginning but they ignited a spark of excitement. Right after this the other students began to be inspired seeing that if you work hard enough and you play really good then your professor is going to be playing with you [laughs], giving you opportunities and helping you out. That kind of started everything. Then when Andrew came up to visit he met all these students and became really inspired by them and vice versa. He kept coming out and I'd have him come to the university to play and hang with the students and there was a really nice vibe. He brought a lot of energy and a lot of wisdom that had a positive effect on the students.

Within that first year-and-a-half, I also felt that this new group of young forward pushing musicians needed a Knitting Factory kind of place or a Tonic kind of place, but less of a performance venue where the audience and performers were separated and more of a communal type of performance space where people could get together and really learn from each other while also challenging each other. So, the youngsters formed the Racer Sessions at this great joint on the fringe of the University district called Café Racer. It's a great hang there. The Racer Sessions are held every Sunday and it's this really incredible gathering where each week there's a different curator who brings in his or her own concept or work, which is specifically written or conceptualized for the session. The curator writes a blog about what they'll be presenting a few days before so that people can be primed. Then they demonstrate the concept in performance. The second part of the hang is an open jam session, which is guided by the curator and is based on the curator's concept for that session. It's a really cool thing and it's sparked this incredibly energetic movement here that has generated some fantastic bands and music.

A short time after that, I was hanging with some of the main leaders of this scene and encouraged them to start a much needed record label to put out their own music and have it under their control. I told them that it was completely essential to the scene that they were building as well as their need to figure out a new business model for recorded music, since the advent of the internet has flipped the recording industry on its head. So, they put this fantastic new label together called Table and Chairs Music [Tableandchairsmusic.com] and I figured that if Andrew and I joined forces and used a couple of these amazing young musicians it would help jump-start the label. It's good for us because we get to play with these young guys with their youthful energy, unique and newer perspectives and really inspired playing. And they get to have us help them with their careers, while tapping into our musical knowledge and experience.

The fact that you are interviewing me is going to help them and it's going to help the label. That's one of the reasons we got this band together. The main reason though, is for us to make music with Luke and Evan Woodle, the drummer, who's still a student at the University of Washington. He blew me away as a freshman. Immediately, I heard this wisdom and musicality from him that usually only comes out of years and years of varied musical experiences and contexts. He also has a fearlessness to jump into the unknown with abandon, and this is all held together with an incredible refinement. It's rare. [drummer] Ted Poor is the only other young guy that I've heard this from.

AAJ: Let's talk about Luke Bergman; he sounds, at least tone-wise like your long-standing bassist Stomu Takeishi; is that fair comment, and if not could you tell us what he really sounds like?

CV: I don't hear him sounding at all like Stomu, I think he's totally got his own thing. Luke can play acoustic bass really well too. He mainly did his jazz studies in college and grew more out of rock music. He's into a lot of underground rock music. He also checks out a lot of contemporary classical music and a bunch of different stuff. He's one of those guys that's got his fingers in every type of music that you can think of. I also think he's more of a real electric bassist, in the sense that he takes care of business the way an electric player does when playing groove music in accordance with that lineage and tradition. That's not Stomu's bag at all; Stomu is kind of this wonderful anomaly, freak of nature type of bassist. No-one has, nor will ever sound like him again. He's truly one of a kind. He plays more in the middle to upper areas and takes up a lot of sonic territory. When he and I play together it's definitely a duet. In whatever context it is, it's always he and I simultaneously and equally making decisions together. With Luke, he can do that too, but he's more of a supportive bassist. What's special about Luke is that he's able to do that while making it work within any musical context that is dealt to him, to us, in the moment, as well as make it go wherever the collective wants to go.

AAJ: You and D'Angelo go back a long way together; how long had it been since you'd last played together before Agogic?

CV: A long time. We hadn't played together since '98 or '99. We just went different ways; he went into a different scene, kind of. It was all related, but he went off into his own zone and I went off into my own zone. I was just focused on doing what I wanted to do and I wasn't playing with that many people at the time. His brain cancer was what brought us back together. Once you make a deep connection with someone in friendship, it's always there to tie you together, even if you stray far apart for a long time.

AAJ: It sounds like he's made a remarkable recovery, because he plays great on Agogic and brings plenty of energy to the mix. His own compositions like "En Se Ne" and "Too Well" are incredibly funky, grooving tunes, but his beautiful, slower tune "Felicia" provides tremendous contrast; as a group were you looking for strong juxtapositions on this recording?

CV: Neither Andrew or I approach music that literally. We just write stuff and we go with what we hear. It just so happens that what you hear on this record is what we heard at that time when we put the music together. It's not like we consciously say:"I'm going to put that with this because it's so disparate but I'm going to make it work." We just tried to pick tunes that worked together as a record. Those pieces didn't actually go together that well and it took a lot of work to come up with a good sequence that produced a coherent musical narrative.

AAJ: Your track "Acid Kiss," like a lot of your music, seems to start from a place of complete freedom and gradually takes form; it's an approach to composition and improvisation which is almost the opposite to a lot of more classic jazz; is this process of composing getting easier with the years or do you still wait for inspiration to strike?

CV: It's still as hard as ever. Maybe it comes down to the type of person I am. I'm hyper critical, especially of myself, so when an idea comes, if I don't strongly gravitate towards it, you know, "This is it, I love this, I can work with this" then I tend not to want to work on it and just wait for the good one to come along. Or maybe it's that I'm not a serious composer since I haven't spent the kind of extensive time intensively honing my compositional skills the way people whom I consider serious composers have. Real composers would just work with their intellectual ideas and eventually they would find the reason an idea came to them in the first place and the solutions that that idea present. It's more like science. I don't do that so my process is not as deep as theirs. What I do is wait for something that I really like and then work on it until it becomes a piece that's suitable to my needs. I'm not a real storyteller in that way, and I'm not a musical scientist, which is how I view them. If I sat down every day and wrote music for at least three hours each day and worked on bits of music that I didn't like that much to try to make it work I'd become a much better composer, but since I don't do that it's still as hard as ever [laughs]. I'm still trying to become the great player. I guess I'm still emphasizing playing at a high level more than composing. So I guess that's why I'm an improviser, which allows me the opportunity to work with and deal with many of the same elements as composition.

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.

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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