Cuong Vu: More Power in a Collective

Paul Olson By

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A lot of times when were playing free, I just want the phrases to happen and our collective mind will determine the points where 'one' is.
No one sounds like Cuong Vu.

Other musicians play trumpet in an effects-laden, rock-inflected environment, but a Cuong Vu album is immediately recognizable. Vu's music couples his trademark airy, bucolic melodies with a deep, churning density of sound and plenty of free improvisation. I spoke with Vu about his fantastic new CD It's Mostly Residual—his first in four years and, to these ears, his best album—as well as about his working trio of longstanding bassist Stomu Takeishi and new drummer Ted Poor, working with Bill Frisell, his experience as a member of the Pat Metheny Group, "bookmarks" and "keys," and a lot more.

All About Jazz: I want to talk about the new album, It's Mostly Residual. First, let's talk business, not music. This CD is available through ArtistShare; you're bypassing the traditional record company route. What led to your selling your album this way?

Cuong Vu: Well, the main thing is that I couldn't get any record companies that I was interested in working with to be interested in working with me! [laughing] Basically, the ones that really get the CDs out there—I could only think of a few, like ECM, Winter & Winter, Blue Note, Verve—they weren't interested. I don't have a connection in there, and I sent my material out and I didn't get a response. I didn't want to go with a really small indie label; they would just struggle to get the stuff out there. And I figured if they're going to do a not very good job getting it out there, I could do a not very good job getting it out there [laughing].

AAJ: You could probably do a better job than some of them.

CV: I think I have been, and since I've been contacting writers, people are pretty responsive and I'm actually surprised. But this is an experiment for me. I'm letting the ArtistShare thing handle the States and Canada and then for Europe and Asia, I'm trying to get it licensed.

AAJ: This is your first album with Ted Poor on drums; your bassist Stomu Takeishi is on all your CDs. And Ted and Stomu are your working band—not just players recruited for this one recording. Tell me what you like about working with them.

CV: Well, with Stomu, I can't really imagine not having him in the band because from the first time we played together, I could see that we had a shared way of thinking about how to improvise. And you know, a lot of people share a similar way of thinking that we do, but then it also comes down to chemistry and just compatibility. It's almost like we read each other's minds. I don't really have to explain that much to him and I know that he's going to take care of certain things that I need to have taken care of while still being completely free to add his own thing on it. It's kind of a hard thing to explain—it's like he can do pretty much do anything he wants and it'll sound right to me. And with Ted, I've been looking for this drummer for a long time, and finally he came—through Ted. And Ted is pretty much the same way [as Stomu], and I think the three of us can play that way together: where we really have a lot of trust in each other and a lot of respect for each other musically so we can really compose together when we're improvising. It seems to work really well.

AAJ: I would have a hard time imagining your music without Stomu, because besides your trumpet, that's what your records sound like—that deep bottom end he provides. That's a trademark of your sound.

CV: Yeah! My whole approach is really just kind of that I know I'm really dependent upon other people to make me sound good. I'm a better improviser when I have other people to improvise off of and go off of. If I play solo, I don't think that I have that much to offer. But just being an empathetic and complimentary player—it's almost like I'm playing the wrong instrument because I'm almost better at comping and finding the right things to play within the context of what other people are doing. And Stomu's kind of the same way. Neither of us is very good at leading—we have little points in the music where we take turns leading, and then we help each other go, and continue, and develop. But if I had to lead the whole time, I'd probably crash a lot.

AAJ: Fortunately, your music is textural and tends to be a blend of things happening together. It's not like the other two just play rhythm section for you to play standard solos over.

CV: Yeah. I haven't been into playing that way in a long time. I just feel that I can make a lot better music this way. In general, when people work together they can come up with something where the sum is a lot better than the individual parts.

AAJ: The most obvious difference on It's Mostly Residual from the last two albums of yours is the presence of Bill Frisell on guitar. I know you must have thought a great deal about adding a guitarist to your music—or at least adding Bill—before you made this decision to include him on this record. What led up to this?

CV: On the first couple of records, even, I'd been going into this direction of guitar sound and a kind of rock. And just inherent in the kind of rock music that I like is a lot of guitar and distortion; I've just always been a guitar fan. But then, just the fact that it took me so long to find Stomu—and now that I've been working with Stomu for, I don't know, like seven years, I can't imagine not working with him, because I need him. And now that I've found Ted, it's the same thing. It took so long to find the right players for me. And I kept an ear out, and an eye out, for a guitarist that could do it, too, and I just haven't found one. But because I've grown up listening to Frisell, that was kind of obvious—he was also a big influence on me. I didn't really set out looking for him to be in the band. We met accidentally, and we kept in touch, and hung out—and when I played in Seattle with my band, he happened to be in town so I asked him if he would just sit in. He did, and it was a really good chemistry. So when it came time to do the record, I actually didn't want to ask him at first because I didn't know him that well and I couldn't really pay that much. And I knew that he's one of those guys that commands a lot of money. I knew that he would do it, but I didn't want to take advantage of him that way. But then eventually, there was nobody else that I felt comfortable doing it with, so I just sucked it up and called him. And he was totally into it—so it was kind of a lucky thing.


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