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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.

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.
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