Cuong Vu: BOUNDLiner notes for Bound (OmniTone 12002)

Cuong Vu lives in an interesting place, at the interface between attraction and aversion.

He doesn't like the trumpet and yet is one of the most engagingly creative, passionate trumpeters on the scene today, described in Down Beat as "a unique trumpet voice."

He spurns jazz and yet plays some of the freshest, probing solos around; he composes multi-layered, variegated, improvisational vehicles that express his musical wishes and still allow musicians leeway to be completely free to create.

He eschews pop superficiality and simultaneously delivers a one-two punch of controlled pop understanding in much of his music, emphasizing the vernacular impact of popular music while avoiding predictability.

Born in Vietnam to musical parents -—his mother was on her way to becoming a Vietnamese pop star and his father played a variety of instruments in numerous bands —Cuong emigrated with his mother to Seattle at age six. Says Cuong, "all the time, my Mom was always singing, my Dad was always playing." Much of the music he heard was Vietnamese pop music, which, due to French colonization and American influences, took pentatonic Vietnamese ethnic music and, according to Cuong, "put it into a pop sound."

One of Cuong's earliest musical recollections was of his father taking him as a tot to a rehearsal and sitting him directly in front of the bass drum. "Feeling the power of the vibrations, everything was so loud," recalls Cuong. "You know when someone's hammering away and your eyes blink? You just feel it, and I felt it like that —I couldn't get that out of my mind —that was the attraction to music then, the effect it had on me. And then at home my Dad had a keyboard and I just made sounds. He would teach me things. So I've always wanted to play -- I was banging on things, and listening to the radio and playing along with it."

Cuong originally wanted to play the saxophone, inspired at age five by his vision of his father (at the time still in Vietnam) playing the saxophone. Cuong thought, "this is my Dad, he plays the saxophone, and this is the shit!" So he asked his mother for a "horn." Through a linguistic mixup, she understood "horn-trumpet" rather than "horn-saxophone" and presented him with a trumpet instead.

"By the time I figured out that I didn't like the trumpet, which was two years later, I thought it was too late to change, 'cause I was already too good!" explains Cuong.

Though he would have preferred to sing or to play rock guitar or drums, friends (and his own rugged determination) spurred him on to master the irascible instrument. Eventually he landed a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music where he played in student ensembles and encountered George Russell, among others.

A turning point at NEC was meeting saxophonist/composer Joe Maneri, who encouraged him to visit previously unknown musical regions and to emphasize originality and personality in music. Cuong also heard Boston-based group The Fringe who, according to Cuong, "blew my mind because they were playing totally improvised music, and I hadn't really heard that kind of thing before." And though he was a jazz studies major, Cuong was exposed to classical and post-modern classical music at the conservatory. He fell in love with the music of Beethoven, Schoenberg, Lutoslawski, Ligetí, and others.

These experiences led Cuong down a path which included searching for his own sound by pushing the established sonority and role of the trumpet into areas that hadn't been vastly explored, as well as finding new forms, textures, and approaches to every improvisation.

"People don't realize that all musics have improvisation in them, like back in Beethoven and Mozart's time. Those guys were improvisers. Composition is really improvising, but you can fix it. Different from on-the-spot, what-it-is is what-it-is," notes Cuong.

He eventually moved on to New York and has recorded and performed with Dave Douglas, Gerry Hemingway, Dougie Bowne, Bobby Previte, Mark Helias, Chris Speed, Andy Laster, Ken Schaphorst and Orange Then Blue. He also has led or co-led bands JACKhouse, Scratcher (featuring Holly Palmer) and Vu-Tet (featuring Jim Black, Curtis Hasselbring, Chris Speed and Stomu Takeishi).

Embracing all of the music that has shaped him from childhood, Cuong has funneled these influences, filtering them into a stunningly unique language and voice in both his playing and writing.

Cuong's music is influenced by his "kinetic memory," things incorporated over years of playing into his fingers and viscera (starting with sitting in front of that bass drum). It relies not on influences of sound or style, but on process: the act of doing, being, being in-the-moment, sometimes getting somewhere. "It's not 'the meat and potatoes,' it's like the concept of 'eating,'" adds Cuong.

And his music is always about sound: big arching melodies and viscous harmonies, alternating darkness and light, sometimes generating sound for sound's sake, and often stratified. Cuong's arrangement of "The Burn," for example, is reminiscent of Charles Ives, also an influence. Cuong collaborated on both "The Burn" and the album's title track with longtime friend, singer-songwriter Holly Palmer. The latter marks his vocal recording debut, though he played piano and sang in a cover band in high school that performed music by Duran Duran and the Police. "Bound" is a good example of "how pop music can also be really avant-garde and creative at the same time," according to Cuong.

Which gets us back to aversion. Because his bent is as often a reaction as an attraction, Cuong might at first seem boxed in, restricted -- "bound," if you will. But to hear his music and really assimilate it is to discover that the real "bound" here is the interconnectedness of things and Cuong's big-hearted wonderment with that. From his averted stance, Cuong looks anew at a place in the world most of us avoid -- the place where we tuck our doubts, fears, loneliness, disappointments, aggravations —and marvel results. For as imposing as his music can be, it is also innocent, trusting and ingenious.

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Cuong Vu.]

©2013-5 OmniTone