At first, trumpeter-composer Cuong Vu’s Vu-Tet (featuring saxophonist Chris Speed, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Ted Poor) is just confusing. The first track, “Intro,” is all tranquil atmospheres. The second, “Accelerated Thoughts,” is noisy avant-fusion. Yet as the album progresses, a rationale for this contrast comes into focus: the first two tracks mark the boundaries between which the Vu-Tet explores. The confusion yields first to intrigue, then enthrallment at Vu’s musical vision, which, for the rest of the disc, involves wrapping his lyricism around both the introspection and agitation. On the lovely “Now I Know (for Vina),” Vu and Speed duet on the melody, then trade languorous lines full of spaces for each other’s fills. “Never, Ever, Ever,” meanwhile, is full of menace, the horn solos moving in a panic thanks to Poor’s frenetics and Takeishi’s dissonances.
Those extremes converge in the masterful centerpiece, “Solitary Confinement”: a klezmerlike minor-key meditation for trumpet and clarinet that intensifies into pounding jazz-rock. Indeed, the blending of contemporary jazz and rock define the Vu-Tet as much as their material does. The shapes of Vu and Speed’s phrases sometimes (“Never, Ever, Ever”) allude to the soundscapes of post-rockers like the Sea & Cake. Takeishi’s complex basslines have the sharp, elastic timbre of electric guitar, and Poor, for all his rhythmic colors, concentrates on the steady backbeat. That Vu-Tet is able to make so many disparate elements intersect at all, let alone with cohesion and vitality, speaks to Vu and the band’s marvelous imagination.