Cuong Vu Keeps it Close to Home for ‘Change In The Air’

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On Cuong Vu 4Tet’s Change In The Air (RareNoise), its namesake trumpeter ditches electronic effects.

(Photo: Peter Purgar)

Despite pre-dawn airport pickups and scary midnight rides, bad food and worse sound engineers, there’s a romance to the road, and trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu sometimes misses it. Vu, born in Saigon and raised in suburban Seattle, has been a professor at the University of Washington for 11 years. Seven years ago, he became a father.

“I miss the camaraderie,” confesses the 48-year-old ex-Pat Metheny sideman. “When you’re on the road, you have two goals: finding good food and playing your ass off. And feeling that high—that feeling that we did something special every day, even if we had a bad gig. I do miss the connection with the audience.”

For now, fans will have to be satisfied by Vu’s second album with his 4Tet, Change In The Air (RareNoise). The new album reunites Bill Frisell (guitar), Luke Bergman (bass) and Ted Poor (drums) for a more subdued, yet also more anxious, studio outing than their 2017 live debut, Ballet: The Music Of Michael Gibbs (RareNoise).

The way the 4Tet came together two years ago speaks to one advantage of staying at home—having a cohort of sympathetic musicians in the neighborhood. At the time, all four players were affiliated with UW. (Bergman and Frisell recently moved to New York, though Frisell continues to work with the university.) The group found its voice at IMPFest, UW’s annual Improvised Music Project showcase of cutting-edge improvisers.

“Bill really wanted to bring out Michael Gibbs,” recalls Vu, referring to the respected jazz-rock fusion arranger, one of Frisell’s instructors at Berklee. “He was a hero to Bill the same way Bill is a hero to all of us.” Giacomo Bruzzo, co-owner of RareNoise, heard recordings of the IMPFest concerts and agreed to issue Ballet, if the band also agreed to record a studio album. “It worked out really well for me, because I hadn’t been composing very much.”

Vu, Frisell and Poor each contributed three tunes; Bergman, one. The gorgeous opening ballad, “All That’s Left Of Me Is You,” is by Poor, who succeeded in trying to write a “song that sounded as if it were an old standard that was uncovered in a songbook somewhere.”

“[Vu] can make any melody sound good,” Poor said. “Even when we play in avant-garde, open situations, he can find a way to operate with this beautiful, natural phrasing. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

The mostly quiet mood of Change In The Air nicely showcases Vu’s warm, fat, burnished tone and nuanced sense of phrasing. On Frisell’s ballad “Look, Listen,” the guitarist pings raindrops on Vu’s long, rich lines, then dances with him in a dual solo. The pair takes another, freer turn on Vu’s “Round And Round”—literally, a round—mingling and interweaving. The quartet returns to the tune two tracks later, but with a tag—hence “Round And Round (Back Around).”

Frisell’s waltz “Long Ago” has a nostalgic feel appropriate to its title, plus a hint of the guitarist’s fabled Nashville twang. Vu joins Frisell in Americana territory on “Far From Here,” a very slow, very free-form blues, caressing the melody, as if he simply were breathing through the horn. The blues gets another nod on Poor’s much darker, Delta-meets-Ornette Coleman “Alive,” with Bergman anchoring the proceedings with a menacing, pedal-tone throb.

Longtime followers of Vu might wonder where the electronic effects are on this album, and the answer is that there aren’t any, at least from the trumpet.

“I’m moving away from that,” the bandleader said. “To get to the next stage, I would have to invest in a lot of new equipment and take time coding sounds. I’d rather invest that time in writing and playing.”

Sometimes, that writing leads to zany places, like “March Of The Owl And The Bat,” a staccato, zig-zag, 12-tone jaunt that has Vu smearing and squiggling at Frisell’s buzzes and yowls. The tune and its title, Vu said, were inspired by a whimsical but whip-smart instructional video by mathematician Vi Hart, which Vu uses as a teaching tool.

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November 2018
Stefon Harris
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