Cuong Vu: Cooking in Seattle
Returning to home town Seattle after 15 years on the east coast has been a good move for trumpeter Cuong Vu judging by the outstanding music on these three CDs and the movement he has largely inspired in Seattle's young creative musicians. Bassist Luke Bergman is a constant on these recordings, adding new depth to Vu's 4-Tet on the uniquely atmospheric live recording Leaps of Faith, and wonderful grooves to Agogic, the self-titled debut of an exciting quartet. A little further back, 2010''s Speak is a rousing endorsement of Seattle's young, creative music scene, and Vu's importance as its guiding influence.
Table & Chairs Music
Agogic is a high-energy quartet bristling with ideas, with a collective out-of-the-box approach to music that's endlessly absorbing. Cuong Vu and alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo lock horns after a 12-year hiatus, and team up with two of Seattle's leading voices from the emerging creative scene, Luke Bergman and drummer Evan Woodle. The resulting brew grooves, rocks, and simmers, leaving the ears and senses tingling.
There's a wonderful coupling of the rhythm section's rock aesthetic with the modern jazz vernacular of Vu and D'Angelo throughout, particularly on the funk-rich "En Se Ne" and driving "Too Well," which feature sinewy brass unison lines and some pretty wild squeals and skronks from D'Angelo. Not to be outdone, Vu unleashes a breathless solo on "Use 2."
There is, however, real form to these compositions, and as exhilarating as the solos are they never hijack the tunes. The slower numbers provide some of the most fascinating group play; a brooding melancholy inhabits Woodle's sci-fi "Old Heap," which builds almost furtively in intensity. There's romance in the achingly beautiful lyricism of D'Angelo's "Felicia," and Vu's "Gently Shifting" has his signature epic minimalism and wide-open textures which share the vocabulary of guitarists/composers Bill Frisell and Chris Schlarb. Stirring stuff altogether.
Cuong Vu 4-Tet
Leaps of Faith
It may require a leap of faith to entertain Cuong Vu's overhaul of jazz standards, but it was no easy step for Vu either, after 15 years doing his own thing. Innovative, too, the use of two bassists, with Luke Bergman holding down the bottom end and freeing Stomu Takeishi up to roam wide sonic territory. It can't have been easy for Bergman to enter and radically rewire a long-standing trio, nor for Takeishi to assume a new role, but Vu's bold move has paid handsome dividends.
Faithful melodic interpretations of "Body and Soul," "All the Things You Are" and "My Funny Valentine" strike an impressive balance between harmonic form and improvisation, and Vu's playing is imbued with emotion. "Leaps of Faith" with its nod to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" hits the accelerator, whereas Vu's "Child-like (For Vina)" smolders like a psychedelic "Voodoo Chile" before veering into storming quartet improvisation, driven by Ted Poor's blistering drumming.
An intimate, powerful reading of George Harrison's "Something" seduces like a slow blues, and again suggests Frisell's influence. The final 25 minutes, of Vu's revamped "I Shall Never Come Back" and Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell" match head-spinning intensity with inherent musicality and attest to the potent chemistry at the core of this unique quartet.
Former students of the jazz program at Washington University, Seattle, electric bassist Luke Bergman, drummer Chris Icasiano, keyboardist Aaron Otheim and saxophonist Andrew Swanson have clearly benefitted from the guiding hand of their professor, Cuong Vu, who guests on this fine debut recording, where the playing is as impressive as it is kaleidoscopic in range. All five musicians were brought up on rock and these leanings inform the music to a large degree, though collective improvisation lies at the heart of the group voice.
A random shuffle through the six tracks would raise more questions than answers; at times Speak sounds like a modern jazz piano trio in the vein of Neil Cowley's trio, or a progressive rock band with howling brass, an alternative rock band, Death Metal, or a Noise experimental outfit. The closer listening that the music merits reveals collective song-writing of maturity and some imagination. There's also virtuosity aplenty to enjoy.
Speak is in complete control of its environment, yet is prepared to take risks. Constantly engaging, Speak is a powerful advertisement for what is possible when egos are suspended, and at the same time, serves as a rallying cry for rock and improvised music. Expect to hear a lot more of this band.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: En Se Ne; Too Well; Acid Kiss; Old Heap; Felicia; Use 2; Gently Shifting.
Personnel: Andrew D'Angelo: alto sax, bass clarinet; Cuong Vu: trumpet; Luke Bergman: electric bass; Evan Woodle: drums.
Leaps of Faith
Tracks: Body and Soul; All the Things You Are; My Funny Valentine; Leaps of Faith; Child-Like (For Vina); Something; I Shall Never Come Back; My Opening Farewell.
Personnel: Ted Poor: drums; Stomu Takeishi: electric bass; Luke Bergman: electric bass; Cuong Vu: trumpet.
Tracks: Amalgam in the Middle; People or Cats; Polypockets; Mustard Knuckles; Pure Hatred; Litany Spirit.
Personnel: Luke Bergman: bass; Chris Icasiano: drums; Aaron Otheim: keyboards; Andrew Swanson: saxophone; Coung Vu: trumpet.