Cuong Vu: Mixing the Menacing and the Ethereal
Trumpeter’s trio builds music on fearless trust and intuition
Trumpeter Cuong Vu attacks his instrument with a ferocious intensity usually reserved for rock guitars, and he uses many of the same electronic processors favored by adventurous guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Bill Frisell.
Yet he also conjures soothing sonic atmospheres from his loops and wah-wahs, occasionally balancing the menacing and the ethereal in a delicate coexistence that stretches the listener’s emotional capacity. Like a gyroscope that attains a sort of stillness only through focused, furious activity, Vu sometimes summons a floating calm out of near chaos.
Born in Vietnam in 1969, Vu emigrated to the States at the age of 6 with his family, who settled in Seattle. When he expressed an interest in playing music as a kid, his dad, who was a musician in Vietnam, took a purely practical approach to the issue and had him take up the trumpet.
“Within certain communities and cultures, the trumpet player was the guy who was going to make the most money,” says Vu in a phone interview from Seattle.
The trumpet, however, wasn’t Vu’s thing, which explains his unique sound and approach.
“What makes the way I play interesting is I actually never really wanted to play the trumpet. I’ve always been really wanting to play drums, and after drums, guitar,” he says.
“By the time I had invested enough time in it that I was pretty good at it, I had decided that I didn’t like it so much. But I didn’t really want to start another instrument. Then it really took a while for me to figure out how to play that thing in a way that I could really like. It really came down to just following your intuition and letting the instrument be the vehicle and not letting the vehicle dictate what you can play,” he explains.
Vu wasn’t alone in liking the way he played. He received a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, won numerous awards and gigged with such luminaries as Pat Metheny, Dave Douglas and Laurie Anderson, among others.
Hearing What the Music Needs
As a leader, Vu has created his own musical territory. It’s definitely not easy listening, but it is intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding.
On his most recent release, It’s Mostly Residual, with longtime trio mates bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Ted Poor, augmented by the inimitable Frisell, Vu creates a kind of six-part symphony, with pieces that can stand well on their own. The compositions—built from musical nuggets, “melodic content or just little motives here and there or a specific groove or a sound”—have an orchestral weight and sweep. “That’s partly why we use effects, too—to fill up with density and with sound and to create different sonic areas.”
The idea is to map a musical narrative “and get into a zone where we can improvise and be as free as we can but still respect the music,” Vu says. “It’s not intellectual. We’re just very focused on the music and letting the music tell us what it needs—and we also really trust each other, and that’s why we can take chances and go to places where we’re completely unsure.”
What is certain are shimmering, mesmerizing sound tapestries that evolve, not in lockstep through a fixed progression of chords and measures as in the typical melody–improv–melody formula, but as they will. From heavy metal rock to acoustic jazz to electronica, the Cuong Vu Trio will use whatever it takes to give the music what it needs right now.
The Cuong Vu Trio appears at the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale SE) on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15/$10 members, available by phone or in person at the Outpost (268-0044).
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