Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: The album title, Leaps of Faith, clearly refers to the challenge for some of the audience listening to standards in this new light, but it maybe also refers to a leap of faith for Takeishi, and perhaps even for Bergman coming into a long-established group and that of his teacher besides, which must be quite daunting; was there a leap of faith for you as well in some respects?

From left: Stomu Takeishi, Cuong Vu, Ted Poor

CV: Yeah, absolutely. The title addresses different things. First of all, I didn't know if this approach would work. I didn't know if we'd be able to address the standards in a way that would make sense to the people who are fans of standards. Once you start doing standards an element of the jazz audience starts getting all snooty about tradition and I just had to let go of that fear and have faith in myself that whatever it is we do, if it resonates with me, it's going to be worthwhile. It's not going to be bullshit. Then another aspect was that I wasn't sure that we could marry the concepts of playing free within the specific harmonic content and forms of those standards, and not sound like we're playing it by rote and just following what's been done, using the established roles. I wasn't sure. So, it took some faith.

AAJ: Did you toy with the idea of bringing in a guitar instead of a second bassist? That worked beautifully on It's Mostly Residual (Cuong Vu, 2005) with Bill Frisell. Were you tempted to go in that direction again?

CV: Probably not. I've always heard guitar in what I do because I grew up with rock music. I like that record with Frisell a lot and I think that is my favorite record. He, being one of my heroes and bringing in that element that I grew up on and it was just amazing how the record came together. But I feel like Stomu is already taking care of a lot of those things, so it's almost redundant. If I really want to showcase Stomu in what he offers that I love most, and having a guitarist is going to take up a lot of that space. It would be more likely that I do a record with a guitarist if he's [Stomu] not going to be on it.

AAJ: The influence of trumpeter Miles Davis is often mentioned by critics and reviewers when talking about your sound, but is Frisell perhaps a bigger influence on you?

CV: Yeah, I think he's had a much bigger impact on what I do than Miles did. It's weird because if you study and play jazz there is no way to escape Miles' influence. I think it's a lack of effort and imagination when people peg me as being influenced by Miles. Who isn't influenced by Miles? Then trying to tie me even closer into Miles simply because I play the trumpet is kind of absurd; it's like saying this white basketball player plays like Larry Bird. As soon as I put effects on people are like "Oh, Miles Davis, Bitches Brew [Columbia, 1970] I listened to it a couple of times and it wasn't appealing to me. Miles Davis in the '60s? Yes, but not Bitches Brew. [Trumpeter] Clifford Brown is a much bigger influence on me but nobody talks about Clifford Brown. So it's just laziness on their part for not looking past the superficial to find the real connections.

With Frisell, when I got to college was when I started listening to his music. It was a completely different sound that was so overwhelming and felt so new. He made a huge impression on me. His works were huge for me, just like Beethoven has been or Stravinsky has been. Frisell's music was like, "Oh my God!" It's one of those things you have to listen to every day all day. He was definitely one of the guys. Before him, Pat was a huge influence. I listened to his music every day.

AAJ: On Leaps of Faith you reappraise a couple of you oldest compositions, "I Shall Never Come Back" and "Child-Like (for Vina)"; did you feel you had unfinished business with these tunes or did they just lend themselves well to the overall concept and sound of Leaps of Faith?

CV: I wanted to document how that material had developed over time on tour with Ted [Poor] in the band. Those tunes were recorded with [drummer]John Hollenbeck. I wanted people to hear how the music had changed since we first played them and also how Ted approaches them. Those pieces were off the first trio record where I felt like I was actually stepping into territory that was simultaneously really new to me but also sort of tailored for me. It was a space where I was really becoming my own person, so it felt right to have those pieces juxtaposed with me trying to present a record that says here, look, I'm going to play standards but I'm going to reinvent them within this personalized and developed approached.

AAJ: Coming back to Speak , you've talked about Luke, could you give us a rundown on the other musicians in the band?

CV: First, it's important for me and for the Speak guys that people know that they are no longer my students and haven't been for over three years. They have become their own people with their own approaches. They're amazing musicians and I look at them more as young peers and not as students. When we recorded that record they were a couple of years removed from being in school. All those guys are fantastic musicians and I really enjoy playing with them. They can be...they should be part of the conversation when people talk about musicians who firstly, are bad-ass mother fuckers, but who are also contributing to the jazz cannon and pushing it forward. There are a few people out here who are doing this and who are working hard and I hope they get their due. I wish I'd had the skills that they have at that age, in terms of already having a mature concept and approach to their own music; they've developed so much further than I had when I was their age. I think if they were living in New York they would be working and people would be talking about them.

AAJ: They were fortunate to have you as a teacher as I guess you were fortunate to have [saxophonist/clarinetist/educator] Joe Maneri come along when he did.

CV: Absolutely.

AAJ: Speak is a tremendous album. If you were to randomly drop a needle on a vinyl version of it—if there was such a thing—you might think it's a modern piano trio, or a modern progressive rock band with some pretty skronky brass, an alternative rock band, Noise, Death Metal...there's a lot happening on this album.

CV: Yeah, that's what I like about it and I also like the fact that those guys were able to bring it into focus and make it work as one coherent record.

AAJ: Yes, there's real form and structure in these compositions and coherency in the album as a whole in spite of the diversity of the music. The songs are all credited to the other guys, is it a little unusual for you take a back seat with regards to the composing?

CV: First of all, the band is theirs. It's not my band. I always told them that I would be a guest on their record and I wasn't a part of their band but somehow in dealing with the press they kind of messed up somewhere [laughs]. I would still play the mentor role here and there and I'd help if they started to go astray and I'd bring them back into focus. If things started to sound bad to me, I'd help them figure out why that is. So, there were parts of it where I was playing the leader role but I tried to stay away from that as much as possible so that they would come up with their own music. That record is really about them and I'm just along for the ride.

AAJ: Let's talk about Table and Chairs Music, the label that Speak is on along with a lot of the upcoming, young Seattle bands. It has an uncommon marketing strategy of inviting people to pay whatever amount they want to download the music. I think Radiohead might have been the first band to do this a few years ago, but does this actually work?

CV: Well, it's still an experiment. The way things are changing so quickly, it's going to be an experiment from here on out. I don't know yet if this particular model works but I do know that the people who don't pay would never have paid anyway. The people who pay a dollar probably wouldn't have paid for it and would have downloaded it somewhere or copied it from their friends, and then you have the people who actually pay some money because they understand that this process is about the artists funding their own art and putting it out. Maybe at some point people will get a better understanding of what's going on. We're in some new territory where there's so much uncertainty. It's really a new frontier. The old model is definitely not working and is deteriorating so there needs to be a new approach.

I actually did much better with It's Mostly Residual and Vu-Tet (ArtistShare, 2005) than I did with being on a label. But with this last record I've noticed a huge dip in people buying the CD because I think that people aren't used to purchasing music anymore. It's Mostly Residual came out only six years ago, so this huge dip is alarming. Over the span of six years, it looks like people have become accustomed to getting music whenever they want it and just getting whatthey want for free. They don't sit there and listen to the entire record, they'll maybe listen to thirty seconds of a piece or even ten seconds, and if they're not really that into it they'll move forward in the track with their mp3 player. There's no sense of patience or of letting things unfold. People just want the hook, they don't to go through the process of getting to the hook. Ringtones. Little bits of info.

So, everything is really changing and I'm curious to see how it will all evolve and how artists are going to evolve, but at this point it seems like we're screwed. It feels like things are not going to be good for us. I don't know how we're going to come out of this but hopefully things are going to be cool eventually. I do think it's going to be much more important for people to go and see live music.

AAJ: You've probably hit the nail on the head. One, don't give up the day job as you said before, and two, chase gigs and encourage people to go and see live music, which after all is the greatest listening experience anyway.

CV:Yeah. Maybe recordings killed live music but now that recordings are free perhaps live music will come back and this is how we'll be able to make our money. If we can't fund recordings anymore because people won't pay for them, why record at all? Let's all stop recording and just play live. People would have to come out and pay if they wanted to hear some new good stuff. And musicians would have to be great because they couldn't' use studio magic to make them sound good anymore. That'd be way better. I'd rather play live for people than going into a studio and recording anyway. Well, that's not entirely true. I wish we could keep doing both and be adequately compensated.

Recording puts me in a lab type of space where the microscope is essential and all of the decision-making comes out of that kind of thorough and detailed examination. It's a snapshot of the overall lifelong musical process but it's also the beginning of a refining process of whatever concept I've been working on. The next step in the development of the music and of myself as a musician—which is infinitely more fun and rewarding—is the live performance aspect in a touring setting where we get to play the music day after day. Live performance is like a drug. It's a musical nutrient for the artist. It makes all of the sacrifices worth it. It always answers my questions of why the hell I do this music thing when there's so little apparent reward. For instance, if I put this kind of time and dedication into commerce I'd probably be filthy rich, you know? The performance is the time during which all of the hard work, self-critique, endless hours of diligent practice and experimentation come into focus in an aural presentation of your own unique perspective on life, through music, to other human beings. And when you can feel them react, which means that they're moved, it's a testament to your existence as a fellow human being. Deeply connecting with others in a way that reaffirms to you that someone else— even a group of perfect strangers—understands you. That's what it's all about, and it's so powerful!

Selected Discography

Agogic, Agogic (Table and Chairs Music, 2011)
Cuong Vu 4-Tet, Leaps of Faith (Origin Records, 2011)
Speak, Speak (Speaking Volumes, 2010)
Myra Melford's Be Bread, The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12 Records, 2010)
Wasabi/Cuong Vu, Closer (Via Veneto Jazz, 2010)
Mickey Finn/Cuong Vu, Gagarin (El Gallo Rojo, 2009)
Cuong Vu, Vu-Tet (ArtistShare, 2008)
Coung Vu, It's Mostly Residual (Cuong Vu, 2005)
Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up (Nonesuch Records, 2005)
Chris Speed's Yeah NO, Swell Henry (Squealer, 2004)
Pat Metheny Group, Speaking of Now (Warner Bros, 2002)
Laurie Anderson, Life on a String (Nonesuch Records, 2001)
Cuong Vu, Come Play With Me (Knitting Factory, 2001)
Cuong Vu, Bound (Omnitone, 2000)
Cuong Vu, Pure (Knitting Factory, 2000)
Chris Speed, Emit (Songlines recordings, 2000)
Assif Tsahar & The Brass Reeds Ensemble, The Hollow World (Hopskotch, 1999)
Dave Douglas, Sanctuary (Avant, 1997)
Saft/Vu Ragged Jack (Avant, 1996)
Orange Then Blue, While You Were Out (GM recordings, 1993)

Photo Credits
Page 1: John R. Fowler
Page 2: Frank Rubolino
Page 3: Andy Oakley
Page 4: Claudio Casanova, All About Jazz Italia
Page 5: Daniel Sheehan
Pages 6, 8: John Kelman
Page 7: William Poor

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