June 24, 2024


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Cuong Vu is widely recognized by jazz critics as a leader of a generation of innovative musicians: Video

19.09. – Happy Birthday !!! A truly unique musical voice, Cuong has lent his trumpet playing talents to a wide range of artists including Pat Metheny, Laurie Anderson, and David Bowie.

As a youngster, Cuong’s intense dedication and love for music led him to a full scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music where he received his Bachelor of Music in Jazz studies with a distinction in performance. Transitioning from his studies in Boston, he moved to New York in 1994 and began his career actively leading various groups while touring extensively throughout the world. As a leader, Cuong has released recordings that consistently make critics’ lists of the best recordings of their respective years. Each record displays how he has carved out a distinctive sonic territory on the trumpet, blurring all stylistic borders while developing his own compositional aesthetic.

Awards and honors that Cuong has garnered include grants from the Royalty Research Foundation, ArtistTrust, 4Culture, CityArts and the Colbert Award for Excellence.  As professor and chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Washington, Cuong was awarded the Donald E. Peterson Professorship and the University’s prestigious Distinguished Teacher Award.  In 2002 and 2006, Cuong was a recipient of the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album as a member of the Pat Metheny Group. He’s been recognized as one of the top 50 young Jazz Artists in an article called “The New Masters” from the British magazine, “Classic CD” and in 2006 was named the Best International Jazz Artist by the Italian Jazz Critics’ Society. Amazon listed Vu’s “Come Play With Me” on their “The 100 Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time”.  Most recently, Cuong received Europe’s Echo Jazz Awards – International Instrumentalist for his work on his recording, “Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny”.

The trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu was born in Vietnam in 1969 but moved to Seattle at the age of five. He cites the Pat Metheny Group live album “Travels” (1983) as the recording that first encouraged him to pursue a musical career and Vu subsequently studied at the New England Conservatory before settling in New York and making his name on the city’s Downtown jazz scene.

Vu first came to my attention in 2002 when he became part of the Pat Metheny Group, touring worldwide and appearing on the guitarist’s album “Speaking Of Now”. Although somewhat under utilised in the context of the Metheny Group his tenure with the band represented a good career move for Vu, raising his profile and helping to bring his playing to the attention of a large international audience. The Cameroonian bassist, vocalist and percussionist Richard Bona was part of the same line up and saw his career benefit hugely also.

Vu also appeared on Metheny’s 2005 album “The Way Up” but had simultaneously been pursuing a solo career that began in 1997 with the band Ragged Jack alongside keyboardist Jamie Saft, saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo and drummer Jim Black. He has since released a further seven albums as a leader of which this current release is the latest.

Away from his work with Metheny and as a solo artist Vu has worked as a sideman with an impressive array of jazz and rock musicians, the latter including Laurie Anderson and the late David Bowie (it still feels strange typing that). Jazz collaborators have included pianist Myra Melford, reeds player Chris Speed, guitarist Joel Harrison, drummer Gerry Hemingway and fellow trumpeter Dave Douglas among many others. In a supportive role Vu has appeared on a total of over thirty albums.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Vu performing live on a couple of occasions beginning in 2002 when he appeared with the Metheny Group at the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole, Dorset. In 2010 I caught part of a set by his trio at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and was intrigued by his updating of the sound of Bitches Brew era Miles Davis. I remember the gig being extremely loud by jazz standards with Vu’s heavily amplified and electronically treated trumpet being joined by the electric bass of Luke Bergman and the rock influenced drums of Ted Poor. The material included innovative arrangements of pop songs that Vu felt deserved to become modern standards, among them George Harrison’s “Something” and Jackson Browne’s “Opening Farewell”.

Fast forward to 2016 with the trio still Vu’s preferred working unit with Ted Poor still behind the drum kit but with the bassist’s role now being undertaken once more by long term associate Stomu Takeishi. The idea of the trio making an album in conjunction with Metheny had been on the back-boiler for a long time after another famous guitarist, Bill Frisell, guested on the earlier “It’s Mostly Residual” (2005).

Metheny says of the new record; “This project is something that Cuong and I have talked of doing for years. For as much as I loved what Cuong has brought to my bands along the way I always wondered what it would be like to join his group for a project, to see what I might be able to offer these guys. Cuong came up with a great set of tunes for the project and we all met in New York City for a few days and recorded this music quite quickly and spontaneously”.

Vu concurs saying; “Pat came to the session and killed it, taking us to different territories. We assimilated his sound into ours and made music that still felt uniquely ours”.

The material consists of five Vu originals plus one tune from Metheny and another by Andrew D’Angelo. The opening piece, “Acid Kiss”, first appeared on Vu’s 199 9 album “Bound” and acts as the framework for some adventurous improvising that develops from Vu’s misleadingly gentle solo trumpet introduction through a thoughtful trio conversation shadowed by Metheny’s guitar FX. The guitarist adopts a very different tone to the one the majority of his fans will be familiar with, harsher and more abrasive with effects to match. It’s a sound that other commentators have likened to that of avant garde specialists such as Marc Ribot and Nels Cline. In time the appropriately named “Acid Kiss” builds up an incredible head of steam as it cranks up the volume, mixing jazz with avant rock in a style that is closer in spirit to the Vu Trio’s 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival appearance than to anything by the Pat Metheny Group. Both Vu and Metheny perform with a blistering intensity, ably supported by Takeishi’s grungy, grounding bass and Poor’s dynamic, often brutal drumming. Ultimately it’s a bruising but exhilarating introduction.

“Not Crazy (Just Giddy Upping)” is less intense but still bristles with intent with Vu’s mercurial, brilliantly executed trumpet phrases presaging a Metheny solo that sees the guitarist switching to a more familiar tone, but still playing inventively and very much in a style faithful to the spirit of this project. But it’s Vu who produces the real fireworks with a stunning solo with quicksilver runs combining with visceral growls and rushes of breath, all this driven by the roar of Takeishi’s electric bass and Poor’s volcanic drumming. Poor enjoys a brief moment in the spotlight before the piece resolves itself by returning to the tricky opening theme.

“Seeds of Doubt” initially brings about a welcome change of mood and pace. Beginning as a kind of abstract ballad it features Vu adopting a less hard edged trumpet sound while the warm tone of Metheny’s solo finds him at his most recognisable. Vu’s later anthemic solo finds the music gradually growing in intensity once more on a piece with a strong narrative arc, a quality that Vu doubtless inherited from Mr. Metheny.

The ten minute epic “Tiny Little Pieces” exhibits similar tendencies as it builds quietly from ruminative beginnings featuring Vu’s mournful sounding trumpet, Metheny’s shadowy guitar and Poor’s atmospheric mallet rumbles. There’s an epic, incantatory quality about the music as it grows, swells and develops with Vu and Metheny taking turns to light the way splendidly shadowed by bass and increasingly dynamic drums. Metheny’s playing is a dramatic clarion call to which his colleagues respond magnificently as the music heads to the outer limits.

Metheny’s own “Telescope” is introduced by the splash of Poor’s cymbals and deploys a rock like sense of dynamics as the brooding but ultimately melodic theme develops into something far more exultant and celebratory, reaching a peak with Metheny’s scorching and thrillingly exciting solo before falling away again into a long, spacey fade. Once again this is a piece with a highly developed narrative arc and it represents one of Metheny’s most satisfying performances of recent years.

Vu’s final offering is “Let’s Get Back”, a piece that begins with the funereal beat of Poor’s drums and has something of the quality of a dirge or funeral march – but in a good way. Unless my ears deceive me the melody sometimes appears to be a dramatically slowed adaptation of that of “Last Train Home”, one of Metheny’s most enduringly popular tunes sourced from his 1987 album “Still Life (Talking)”. In any event the music is both atmospheric and effective, maybe the piece should have been called “Slow Train Home”.

The album closes with Andrew D’Angelo’s “Tune Blues”, perhaps the most obviously ‘jazz’ piece on the record with its bebop inspired hook and insidious melody and groove. Vu’s solo here represents some of his most straight-ahead playing of the set but Metheny chooses to muddy the waters with a surprisingly visceral solo that mixes elements of jazz, blues and the avant garde.

I have to say that overall I was very much impressed with the music to be heard on “Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny”. This is music that sounds fresh, spontaneous and adventurous but still with enough structure and compositional awareness to appeal to most discerning listeners. There are probably some PMG and Unity Group fans who won’t like it but I welcome Pat’s periodic excursions away from his main bands, some of his most adventurous and satisfying music has been made in unusual contexts and this album is right up there with the best of them. It’s good to hear Metheny still taking musical risks at this stage in his career.

The interplay between Vu and Metheny is excellent throughout and stems from their long association – this isn’t a first meeting after all – but the contributions of Takeishi and Poor shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly that of the latter. Poor may not be a conventional jazz drummer but his rock influenced combination of power and precision allied to a jazz inspired looseness is just right for this band and I was impressed by him.

I’m not sure exactly when this album was recorded (it was released on May 6th 2016) but it seems to me that the spirit of Ornette Coleman pervades this record and I suspect that it may have been recorded around the time of Coleman’s death in June 2015. Metheny famously collaborated with Coleman in 1985 on the iconoclastic album “Song X”. This latest collaboration with Cuong Vu might just be Metheny’s “Song X” for the 21st Century.

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