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Cuong Vu is a Vietnamese-born, Seattle-raised trumpet player who can be considered a pretty damned impressive and forward thinking just by looking at the list of bandleaders who he impressed enough to have in their bands:Pat Metheny (Group), Dave Douglas, David Bowie and Satoko Fujii put him in their groups at one time or another [read about Vu's contributions to one of the Pat Metheny Group's best latter-day records The Way Uphere]. Vu's career has consistently favored going out toward the fringes of jazz, and his own groups have reflected that sensibility. A trumpeter who seeks to push out the boundaries of jazz draws the inevitable comparison to that Miles dude, but he's closer in spirit to Wadada Leo Smith, who can be quite willing to go off squarely into avant-garde, as Vu is unafraid to do. Former boss Dave Douglas is another obvious influence, and Vu's tone is similar to Douglas, bolstering the comparison.
Vu, however, remains his own man, and almost as if to underscore that point, he recently moved back to his hometown Seattle after making a very successful career residing and thriving in New York since the 90s. Since moving back, he's formed two combos, both of which have had new CD releases this year. We're going to briefly size up each of these discs, plus another new one, but by a fusion project he participated in that's led by the bassist. Taken together, these three albums point to the diversity and recent productivity of Cuong Vu:
Cuong Vu 4-TetLeaps of Faith
4-Tet is a reshuffling of his Vu-Tet combo, replacing reedman Chris Speed with bassist Luke Bergman. That's a pretty significant swap, since there's already an electric bassist held over, longtime Vu associate Stomu Takeishi. Ted Poor remains behind the drum kit. The more dramatic turn comes from the songs themselves...Vu chose mostly old standardsboth jazz and popperhaps as a way to reconnect with his musical roots, and return to tradition informed with the things he's picked up as he came into his own as an artist.
A two-bass hit (no, he didn't cover that tune) might conjure up notions that this is some heavy music, but it really isn't. Ethereal" is a more accurate adjective to describe this record. The melodies are recognizable enough, but delivered in such a dreamy haze, they still seem different. That accounts for mixed results: All The Things You Are," propulsed by Poor's ace drum work and melodic bass work by the duo, works great in this context. On the other hand, I'm not sure if another cover of the Beatles' Something" was called for, especially running it half the tempo of the already-slow original. Mostly, though, it's interesting, and Leaps of Faith" a group improvisation, is spacious, but also more muscular and menacing than the rest of the set. Vu's two songs are also out there; Child-Like (For Vina)" is highlighted by a bass solo (probably Takeishi), that sounds more like a whacked out electric guitar solo, and I Shall Never Come Back" takes off like a runaway freight train.
It's hard to tell for the most part, but Leaps of Faith was recorded live. The crowd noise was almost completely taken out and the sound went through some refinement that most likely added some of the industrial feel. Contrast with an unedited live video recording of the same gig in the link below, and it's a good guess that the energy and spontaneity of a live performance was sought, but with the smoothed edges of a studio one. I might not be in full agreement with the arrangements chosen for some of the covers, or even with the choice of some overdone standards, but the performance is way about average and the mixing job (by Bergman) did justice to the music.
Agogic is essentially an alliance between Vu and reedman Andrew D'Angelo (Erik Friedlander, Either/Orchestra, Matt Wilson, Kurt Rosenwinkel), who also grew up in Seattle before moving on the Boston and New York. D'Angelo followed Vu back to Seattle for this band and together they rounded it out by up-and-comers of the town's scene with Bergman on bass and Evan Woodle on drums.
D'Angelo wrote most of this set of originals, which in spite of the huge presence of Bergman's electric bass, is still advanced modern jazz and sometimes even whack jazz at its core. Even on funky numbers like En Se Ne," the meat of the performance is the interaction between D'Angelo and Vu, and the songs have easily recognizable heads that they use as springboards for excursions into the wild. But Bergman and Woodle bring an exuberant rhythm section that is barely contained at times and flat out drive the speed tunes like Too Well" and Use 2." Vu's Acid Kiss" (Youtube below) seems like a missing track from Bitches Brew, with it's drawn out theme colliding with the young guys' fury underneath. D'Angelo caves in to the pull of Bergman and Woodle and goes off violently with his alto sax. It isn't all brute force, though, as they mix it up with some ambient tracks that are more similar to the 4-Tet record above.
It takes a little while to sink in, by Agogic offers much to the patient listener, and offers proof that Vu (and D'Angelo) are leading an impressive revival in Seattle's progressive jazz scene. Released on April 19, Agogic is the first released by the fledgling Seattle-based label, Table And Chairs Music.
Naked Truth isn't a band led or co-led by Vu, but this whack-fusion outfit would probably be completely different without him. A project instigated and coordinated by Italian electric bass whiz Lorenzo Feliciati, he enlisted Vu, keyboardist Roy Powell (Anthony Braxton) and former Mr. Mister and King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. The major thing that makes this stand out from your run-of-the-mill fusion record is the basic approach taken to the music, one that Feliciati describes as a horizontal" approach to the music-making. That is, instead of participants playing in segregated roles, they are improvising alongside each other. I don't see that as a new concept, but aside from perhaps Mastelotto's King Crimson band, it's a largely forgotten one; Miles' early fusion music took this approach and the early Weather Report took it to the whole other level. So does Naked Truth on it's debut album, Shizaru.
The bass-heavy music with its soaring trumpet and modern atmospherics, this shares much of the elements of a Vu-led combo, which is why I stated that Naked Truth probably wouldn't be anything the same with him. As on the Vu records, there are the ambient moods, and sometimes it's shredding time, and often, these sides are found within the same song. One such song is the title track (Youtube below), which begins with a chilled-out groove than morphs into a most nasty skronk created, I believe by Vu blowing non-tonal blasts into his horn simultaneously with Feliciati getting his bass all metal fuzzy. Some cuts, like like the dreamy Ossimoro" have a distinct 80s sound to them; whether that's appealing to you or now depends on whether you like 80s-sounding fusion.
Myself, I find the most enjoyment from this record from the way they put those sounds together, which relies not on technology but musicianship. On the basis alone, Shizaru finds success.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.