April 2008

Cuong Vu: Beyond All Borders

Cuong Vu just bought a new house, but don’t ask him when he’s going to pack up his old one. “I’m looking around my room going, ‘Oh, my God!’” he says. “Moving is hard.”

Of course, piloting a U-Haul across town is nothing compared to, say, leading a bicoastal band—which is what Vu’s been doing since he moved from New York to Seattle in 2006. On his latest, the impressive Vu-Tet (ArtistShare), the trumpeter augments his New York-based rhythm section—bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Ted Poor—with yet another New Yorker, reed player Chris Speed.

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Virginia Valdes

Cuong Vu

As one might expect, this tight-as-a-vise-grip jazz act would be nothing without a good Internet connection. Vu, a teacher at the University of Washington and a member of the Pat Metheny Group, usually sends compositions to his band via e-mail. Though it might be difficult to make music this way, finding the words to describe the Vu-Tet’s electro-acoustic sound isn’t much easier.

“I try saying stuff like, ‘Well, I play jazz-informed experimental instrumental ambient rock music,’ and that still doesn’t make any sense,” Vu says. “Generally speaking, if people don’t know anything about jazz, they’re either going to hate what we do—and it sounds like noise—or else we’re going to strike a chord with them. I don’t think there’s really an in-between.”

What makes this band so polarizing is that it’s too traditional to be experimental, yet too experimental to be traditional. Vu, whose playing betrays a kind of Old World elegance, has been known to bathe his horn in a bevy of electronic effects. And, lest the music get too soft or indistinct, his rhythm section—which has backed him for half a decade—adds plenty of sharp angles, evoking everything from doom-metal to funk.

When the subject of Takeishi and Poor’s aggressive performance comes up, Vu suggests that Vu-Tet is the first recording that captures the full dynamics of the rhythm section. “There was a certain amount of edginess that didn’t come through [on the previous disc, 2005’s It’s Mostly Residual], but that also had to do with how the record was mixed.”

To get a more accurate sound on his latest, the trumpeter went where few in the American jazz scene have gone before: Mexico City. Vu traveled there in November 2006 to record with Los Dorados, a local (and really quite excellent) quartet that contacted him via e-mail. He liked the band’s producer, telenovela composer Gerardo Rosado, so much that he decided to go back. “He was so cool,” Vu says, “and talking to him I just kind of started realizing that we overlap in how we think about music and business … and I just really wanted to work with him.”

Poor, for his part, says that recording with Rosado was so easy that “it rarely felt like work.” The band captured most of Vu-Tet’s seven tracks on the second take and the rest they got right away. This left Poor and his fellow chowhounds plenty of time to explore Mexico City and “eat really good,” which they were able to do thanks to the boss-man’s contacts. “Cuong really takes care of us,” the drummer says. “I knew it would be a great hang. … We ate tons of tacos and we went to this seafood place that was really spicy.”

As relaxing—or heartburn-inducing—as that might sound, the band’s 10-day trip was anything but extravagant. Poor estimates that the whole shebang cost roughly the equivalent of a couple days in a Manhattan studio. And even if an underground jazz group wanted to vacation on a record company’s dime, that era has come and gone. Vu releases his own music now—via the ArtistShare service—and has ever since 2001’s Come Play With Me, the final album in his contract with the Knitting Factory label.

“I’m sure you know, as everyone else knows, that the record company model—old business model—is dying,” Vu says. “Doing it with ArtistShare, everything is transparent. I see how many records I’m selling. I get most of the profit. So even if I sell a small number, I’m going to make a whole lot more money than I would on a small label.”

This added income, along with his university paycheck, allows Vu to work on his music rather than scramble for gigs. “I can get more done practicing than playing at this point,” he says. “I’m just trying to get to the next level.” Perhaps remembering all the boxes he needs to pack, Vu uses a moving metaphor to further describe what he means. “You know, just to get better and find that new landing spot. Right now I feel I’m pushing to get to that next place.”

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