Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

Ian Patterson By

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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.



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