Interview with Cuong Vu
(with Frank Tafuri)

Cuong Vu

Frank Tafuri: So here we are getting ready to release your debut record as a leader on OmniTone, which is billing itself as having adventurous and listenable music, and admittedly proudly proclaiming itself as a jazz label. And you've said to me, a couple of times, that you don't even really like jazz. So I guess, I wonder what you mean by that, and how it is, for someone that says they don't really like jazz, that you came to be associated with this project [or sitting here today].

Cuong Vu: That's a big question. Ok, first. Hmm. The reason why it's hypocritical, or a paradox, is because, people consider what I do jazz. Simply, because I think it's got a lot of improvisation in it. And it's almost like any time you improvise, they're going to label it jazz. People don't realize that all musics have improvisation in it, 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. And then, the other aspect of when I say I don't like jazz, is that I have a really specific, ingrained idea of what jazz is, and that comes out of being in high school, and hearing Wynton and all those people, Stanley Crouch and all those people, talking about "jazz" over and over and over, and declaring what jazz is, and saying that —essentially, a lot of times they would say that whatever white musicians did wasn't jazz. So then after a while, of hearing that, I felt like, ok, so what I do isn't jazz. (Laughs) But then there is another part to that —I studied jazz simply because I played trumpet, and I wanted to play "un-classical" music, 'cause I wanted to improvise. So in high school, they have jazz programs and you go into the jazz band and you play jazz.

Tafuri: So that was the alternative, basically.

Vu: Yeah, but my teachers would give me jazz records and I didn't really like them, and all I really listened to was fusion. And that's not really jazz —we'd have to sit there and define what jazz is —for any of this to make sense….

Tafuri: Well, "jazz" is a lot of things to a lot of different people…

Vu: Yeah, it's just such a broad term now, that it doesn't really matter what I say, really, but when I say "jazz" I mean, like, music that's not really forward-looking, and it's become dogmatic. Like just "licks" and "style," and copping what's been done.

Tafuri: The word [describing that] that I've been using for our other OmniTone releases is "re-creationist," basically.

Vu: Yeah. And even when I hear music that I think is creative and very in the idiom, it's still bothers me to a point, because of all that stuff that I experienced in college and with Wynton and his whole thing, I just have this hate for that music, so if there is anything that starts to have a sound similar to that sound, it makes me not want to like it. But if I like the person, I'll listen to it with more open ears, and appreciate it.

Tafuri: So it almost sounds like the hang-up is not so much with the music, whatever the music is, whatever "jazz" is, or the "concept", but more with the term, and a particular positioning of the term.

Vu: Yeah, and also the attitude within that scene. The straight-ahead scene —I just remember being in college, and practicing, and, I practiced a lot in college, eight hours a day, of just trumpet, and then on the piano, learning my harmony, doing all that stuff, and meanwhile I didn't really like the music, but my teachers were "you have to learn bebop in order to be a legitimate musician." So, being stupid, I did! And I didn't realize that you can draw from a lot of different types of music —cause music is music —you learn how music works, and you just do it, it doesn't have to be through bebop. And then I met Joe [Maneri] —and also, I heard the Fringe [George Garzone, John Lockwood, Bob Gulotti] and they blew my mind because they were playing totally improvised music and I hadn't really heard that kind of thing before,-- and then I met Joe and he pushed me further into re-evaluating what I did and what all this "jazz" is all about, and I decided I wanted to explore other musics, and that the best way for me to do that was by improvisation and trying not to be any one kind of style, and while I was doing that, a lot of the jazz players started looking down at us, or just kind of putting down what Jamie [Saft] and I were trying to do, and sort of discrediting us and saying that we were just bullshit. And that fed the "I hate jazz" and "I hate jazz people" —so many of them were not open-minded, so close-minded, that they can't see, that just because I'm not playing over chord changes or playing the licks that I've practiced 10 hours a day, that my music is legitimate.

Tafuri: There definitely is a factionalism in the music —I've worked in a lot of different areas, as a presenter, as a manager, as a record representative, and now as the owner/manager of a record company, I see that —and I kind of feel that as an advocate for the music, creative music/adventurous jazz, that there is that factionalism —that's one of the things that's maybe keeping some of the more creative elements of it down. Everybody wants their little slice of the pie, and we're talking about a little slice to begin with! So they want their few crumbs, you know? I hear what you're saying.

Well, having said that, a question that I would have is: Have you been influenced by any "jazz" players?

Vu: Yeah, I think it's impossible not to be influenced by anything that you submerge yourself in completely and try to study all day, listening, analyzing, practicing and learning. We can't not be influenced, and a lot of what I'm trying to do these days is trying to I'm always trying to develop my own voice, or find my own voice, and trying to find something that really just mine —that you can't really categorize, so you can't say "he sounds like this/he sounds like that." But, those things are always going to be in my fingers —you know, my kinetic memory —it's always going to be in my head, so a lot of time I'm going to play stuff that sound jazzy. And I try not to, but when you hear things, you just have to go for it.

Jazz players that I've been influenced by, when my teachers made me study jazz, I listened to a lot of different people, but the main people were Miles, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan. So, if there is any real jazz trumpet influence, it would be those three guys.

Tafuri: I wasn't necessarily meaning jazz trumpet, because lots of times you hear jazz pianists who say they were influenced by saxophone lines.

Vu: Yeah. But at that time I was really trying to understand the trumpet in the bebop thing. So by the time when I decided that I didn't want to do that any more…

Tafuri: It was already part of you, on some level…

Vu: Yeah, and then, when I listened to other jazz instruments with a more open mind, at that point, that kind of influence wasn't happening. It was more about just checking out how they dealt with things conceptually, and not really copping their way of doing things, their way they interweave their lines for example. So from that point until now, it's like, the influence —any influence I have now is purely conceptual. And it's not "sound-influenced" and it's not "style-influenced" —it's not "the meat and potatoes," it's like the concept of "eating."

Tafuri: Right. I got you. I guess something I've got to bring up now, and it's probably as good of a time as any, is that, so often, when I've seen your name mentioned or when people talk about you, or whatever, they talk about you as a protégé, or a disciple (if people use that strong a word), of Dave Douglas. And I guess it's important that people really understand, if not once and for all, at least clearly, what your relationship is with Dave.

Vu: Ok, influence wise, I met Dave when playing with [George Schuller's] Orange Then Blue, in college, before I met Joe [Maneri]. And he was one of the guys that made me go, "Wow, there's a lot more to music than just playing licks and jazz." Because he just played. He had all these different angles, in dealing with how he would solo, and just his attitude of being completely in command and going for it, that was his main influence on me. Once I got back from the Orange Then Blue tour, every single solo that I took had that attitude to it. But, when people talk about being influenced by him and sounding like him, it boggles my mind because I'll listen to the both of us, and I don't hear it, and my peers that I work with a lot don't hear it, and I doubt that Dave hears it. I've never asked him straight out, I've said people are comparing me to you and he just laughs —I think maybe he gets a kick out of it, too.

Tafuri: Well. It's interesting to listen to the two of you on Sanctuary, on different channels, so you can really A/B what's going on there, and it's obviously very different. You're playing in the same pieces, and you're all part of the same grooves, yet there is still a very distinct sound between the two of you.

Vu: I think so, and I think maybe people can't see the subtle differences, because the trumpet is a pretty restrictive instrument, it's not that malleable, and if I played notes where the harmonic language is atonal, Dave and I might prefer the same intervals, and that confuses people. But our phrasings are different —completely —he plays things that I would never play —and I play things that he would never play, though we really dig each other. If I play "off-horn," they might say, "oh, he sounds just like Herb Robertson." It's just because the sound isn't as diverse, I think.

Tafuri: "Off-horn?"

Vu: Yeah, they call it "off-horn," as in extended technique. "Not-normal" sounds, squeaks, growls, etc. And Herb and Dave have been around, and people know who they are, they don't know who I am, and so if they hear me squeak, it's "(finger snap) Herb Robertson!" [Laughs] Or, if I'm playing a blur of notes, it's "(snap) Don Cherry!" What the hell is that?

Tafuri: That's the need for people to label and put hooks on things. It will be interesting to see the reaction people will have to (both people with open ears and the "establishment") to this new record Bound, cause there are so many things that come together in it. When we were in the studio, I hadn't really heard the final concept of the music —it was new to me, and even then we really didn't hear it till we got to the mixing stage. But you have these grand, arching themes in a couple of your pieces, that are almost heroic, or a very "Americana" kind of thing, and to apply a term that others might understand, I'm going to say Aaron Copland even, and so I guess if your influences are outside of jazz, (in jazz and outside of jazz), what kind of influences do you have that are outside of jazz, that went into the music and into Bound?

Vu: Again I think it's all about the concept, really, of just going about getting something that you want, and I think if it sounds like something [else], that's a by-product. I'm not out to cop a sound. You might say Copland, somebody else might say…

Tafuri: Just as a point of reference, basically.

Vu: Sure. I don't mind being labeled that way as much as to individual jazz players. But I've never checked out Aaron Copland's music. I've heard some of his main works in "music survey history," and I didn't particularly love it. I would say that the people that I've checked out the most were the Schoenberg and post-Schoenberg school, and then Mozart and Beethoven. That's all.

Tafuri: I know you're a Beethoven fan.

Vu: Big Beethoven fan. So, that's kind of a good example of how maybe people could say I sound like Dave, or Don, or Herb, or something. It's just the by-product of what I'm trying to do, and I'm not really influenced —

Tafuri: Well, ok. But maybe not consciously, but as you said before, when stuff goes through you —

Vu: Yeah, but I've made a conscious effort to not listen to Dave and Herb too much, cause I do love their playing. And when I love somebody's playing a lot, I'll listen to it too much, and sub-consciously it'll soak in, and I knew that I didn't want to be tagged in that way, so I have not listened to them on purpose. I go to their gigs if I feel that they need the support, but Dave is at the point where all these people are at his gigs all the time, he doesn't need me there! Maybe he'll want to run something by me if he's really proud of it, and I'll give him the support that way, but I don't want to be influenced that much.

Tafuri: Well, I almost don't know where to go now, because one of the pieces that I really liked that was part of your session, was the one where you mentioned the name Charles Ives.

Vu: Yeah, that's the burner. And that's concept —I didn't use his harmonic language or his rhythmic language, I just used the idea that he liked to have two or three or even more things going on at the same time. And that sounds easy ("ok, lets have two things going on at the same time"), and a lot of times when you do that it'll sound like shit. So, the idea was to have that approach and figure out, for me, how that's gonna work, how I'm gonna make it work.

Tafuri: That's the idea of the process, I think. The influence that you have is more from the process, and not even necessarily the methodology —you develop your own methodology.

Vu: Exactly —And the process that you come up with yourself, it's just —Ives did this —oh really? Listen to it —wow, that's really cool —how did he come up with that? I didn't go and read and figure out how he thought about it, and emulate exactly what he did. You can't do that, so I said, "Ok, I'm just going to try this idea and see how am I going to make it work for me" —or, "This can work on this tune."

Tafuri: And it sounds like you did enough of that "dissection and reconstruction" in college. Not really in classical music, but as in all those trumpet players, as in the jazz study thing.

Vu: Yeah, and I found it to be useless. For me. A lot of jazz teachers say that it's a key to emulate a great figure and I don't agree. I think that kept me back. But then again maybe that was a key to my understanding that that's not what I want to do.

Tafuri: Well, my motto is: Do something. Because if you do something and you hate it, at least you know what you don't like.

I'm going to ask you a question that probably if you were an established artist I wouldn't ask. Forgive me, but you're new and people don't know who you are real well. How did you get into music? How did that come about?

Vu: Well, my Mom and my Dad were both musicians in Viet Nam. And my Mom was on her way to be, like, a Vietnamese pop star. We all knew about her and she was like this budding singer. My Dad played all kinds of instruments, played with all kinds of bands. And they met, and they played music together…

Tafuri: In more ways that one…

Vu: And the war interfered with that. But I was around that —all the time, my Mom was always singing, my Dad was always playing, and I would go —and I remember my first impression —I was really little, but my Dad took me to a rehearsal and I sat right in front of the bass drum, and feeling the power of the vibrations, everything was so loud —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.

Tafuri: Very visceral.

Vu: Yeah. 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.

Tafuri: What kind of music did your Dad play? [Was it ethnic music?]

Vu: It was Vietnamese pop music. It's basically —you know, Vietnamese ethnic music is pentatonic (that's the easiest and most surface way to explain it) but then, you know they were colonized by the French, so all that influence came, and then the American influence, so you just take the pentatonic and put it into a pop sound. That's what they did.

Tafuri: So it sounds like even your early musical references were already a kind of composite, or uncatagorizable in a lot of ways. So that's how you got attracted to the music, but how did you get to the trumpet?

Vu: That's a funny story. Fate. Because my Dad played both trumpet and saxophone, but I —when we left Viet Nam, my Dad stayed behind, to take care of his family, and my Mom and my sister and I came over to be with my Mom's big family.

Tafuri: How old were you?

Vu: I was five. And I always had this picture of him playing the saxophone, thinking, this is my Dad, he plays the saxophone, and this is the shit! And it looked so cool, and the word for saxophone, and trumpet, is just "horn." You'd say, the horn-saxophone or the horn-trumpet. And I was, "I want to play the horn!," meaning the "horn-saxophone." And my Mom went out and bought a "horn-trumpet." (Laughs) I tried to play it, I couldn't play it, and five years later my Dad came over, and he said, "ok, we have a trumpet, why don't you just do it?" So I went and I practiced, joined the band, and bla bla bla, and I was really good for my age and just had a knack for learning the instrument, better than most kids. So 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! (Laughs)

Tafuri: Boy, this is Wagnerian in scope, man! What a love/hate thing!

Vu: In junior high and college, I hated it, but everybody was, "wow, he's gonna be great, wow wow wow!" And I didn't have very good self-esteem, so anything I could grasp on to that was positive, I would hold on to it with dear life, and inflate it, so I was, "I'm a good trumpet player —it's way too late for me to change instruments now." And you know, I really wanted to play pop music —I wanted to play guitar, or drums, or sing, or whatever.

Tafuri: So do you still hate the trumpet?

Vu: I hate the fact that I can't play it as well as I would want to —it's a pain in the ass. The trumpet is a pain in the ass. And I hate a lot of the things that come out of it, but the good thing about it is, it makes me —and this is what we were talking about before —when you know that you hate something it makes you find something different that you might like about it. So I think that that contributes to the fact that I sound different. I don't have Dave Douglas chops, I also don't like a lot of the things that the trumpet sounds like, so I'm trying to find things that I like about it. So it's cool.

Tafuri: Is that part of the reason why you use electronics?

Vu: Well part of the reason is because I want to be able to fit into this music which is mostly electrified. And also, trumpet, to me, sounds really cheesy because of what Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione did over pop music. And any time I play that, it's "God, I sound like Herb Alpert and Mangione," even though I didn't listen to them. That's the same thing like people thinking I sound like Dave. Same kind of thing. So, I want to be able to play in that kind of context and the electronics help it a little more. The only trumpet that sounds good over pop music is Earth Wind and Fire type music,, but you can't really solo that way all the time.

Tafuri: Kool and the Gang.

Vu: Yeah.

Tafuri: So it isn't so much that you're trying to find different sounds, or expand the range of the trumpet, as you were talking about earlier how restrictive it is in many ways.

Vu: It is, but I still try to find different things —just because I don't like to do things that have been done over and over and over. I don't like hype, I don't like the norm.

Tafuri: Well, how do you keep doing that?

Vu: By improvising with people who you think are boundary-pushers. I think the key in the development in what I do with improvisation, is finding the right people, that push me and also have the same ideas about shape, and form.

Tafuri: Well, how long have you been here in NY?

Vu: Going on six years.

Tafuri: And before that up in Boston?

Vu: Yeah.

Tafuri: So how do you think being in New York has affected your playing?

Vu: I think it's made me refine more and more, and figure out more and more what I like, and refine that. But in terms of exploring, I think the most exciting time for me was my time with Joe [Maneri], and finding new things about music.

Tafuri: While you were still in school [New England Conservatory].

Vu: Yeah. And right now I'm going through a stage of really making what I do at this period as good as it can be. Once that happens I'll be bored and I'll search again.

Tafuri: So you really do work on a series of plateaus, from one to —

Vu: —and then "oh God, I suck! I better practice, I better find something new!"

Tafuri: It's all aversion, that's what it is! The aversion principle!

Well, do mind if we talk about some of the tunes and the album? I've played the opener for quite a few people and it just knocked their eyes out. It was "Two."

Vu: "Two." The name comes from a lack of imagination. (Laughs) It was the second piece that I was working on, at that time, for a specific concept. And also, it turned out to be kind of a good name cause —before I was working on that concept —I was doing a lot of work with the quintet that I had with Chris Speed, Curtis Hasselbring, and Jim Black, and that was really my exploration of things that I found fascinating about Schoenberg, and that school. So it was very atonal, and chamber, and very —more polyphony —all the voices were their own melodies, and in the way they came together there was a lot of counterpoint, but I felt like it was too much to work with at the same time and that I was in over my head. But I felt like I did a good job —but when I wrote "Two" it was like I was stripping it down to two lines, and really figure counterpoint for myself. Not counterpoint that I learned in college, just different ideas of counterpoint. And I was also working with two ideas, two motives, that I was working with. So it's like two, and two, and the second tune, two. Couldn't figure out what else to call it.

Tafuri: Well, it works on several levels. That solo was phenomenal in there! It keeps going and going and going.

Vu: Yeah, I like that. A lot of times I surprise myself, because, a lot of times when I'm playing, and after a gig, I'll go "God I suck! This sucks!" —and then I listen back and realize "Hey, that was pretty good." I learned that from my Dad —I learned how to hate myself from my Dad. But then when I look at it from behind, I like it.

Tafuri: One of those themes, one that I really liked, is "Our Bridge." Is there a story behind that one?

Vu: Kind of. I wrote that in college -- it was influenced by Sting. I wrote it while I was home [Seattle] on summer break, but during college. It was the summer after my first year away, and before I went away, I had never gone away —I was a total Mama's boy. I felt some fear about leaving the nest and I was really worried that she couldn't deal with not having me around to take care of things.  It was completely idiotic cause now I realize that she's given me everything —that she's the one that kept me going —

Tafuri: So your father's no longer around?

Vu: He's somewhere, but he's not part of our lives. So I was writing it [Our Bridge], and it was close to the end of summer, and I knew I had to go back to Boston, and I was really sad. So I wrote this sad song. But it was after I had hung out with one of my best friends who —it was traumatic for both of us for me to leave as well. It crushed him and it crushed me. We went out and hung out at a spot that we usually hang out at, there's this bridge, that goes over the water, and it's actually I-90, which starts in Seattle and ends in Boston. So that's what connected us —he says, "Whenever I miss you I come down here and I look at this bridge, cause that's what connects us." Now that's a good title. That's one of those titles that —"Hey, it means something!"

Tafuri: Both of them so far mean something.

Vu: Well, if I would have named it like "Two" I would have named it, like, "Sad." Something depressed. (laughs)

Tafuri: Well, there are a couple that are particularly intriguing here. One of them is "Acid Kiss."

Vu: That name really could have worked for anything. It was one of those things where you look at something, and it looks cool. It comes from a poem called "Battery Acid Kiss From a Stranger," and it's a friend of Holly's [Holly Palmer] who wrote it, and I did that tune with her reading poetry. Kind of a reading/rapping, controlling the dynamics of the band. So I stripped it down, cause I didn't want to pay any money for the words! (laughs)

Tafuri: Very pragmatic! How about "Still Ragged?"

Vu: "Still Ragged." I wrote that, and my cat was bothering me —he always bothers me, he needs to be around me all the time —and he was all over the place, and the tune is in a meter that's really uneven, and the melody, the way it goes together with the bass line, just sounds almost like it's gonna break apart. It's a ragged thing Still Ragged.

Tafuri: Did that have anything to do with the name of the group that you had?

Vu: Yeah, kind of, the previous group was called Ragged Jack, which is named after the same cat, Jack.

Tafuri: It's your cat? (laughs)

Vu: Yeah, my cat is a big part of my life, and he's a big pain in the ass. And I wrote this tune, and I was going to do it with Jamie in our band Ragged Jack, but our band broke up because of personnel problems. And I wanted to call it "Ragged Jack" but we thought if we did that the ex-members might be hurt, so I thought let's call it "Still Ragged." So it's still Ragged Jack but not Ragged Jack.

Tafuri: Yet another bridge. You do this tune on here, and I guess this is your vocal debut on record too, isn't it? "Bound." And you mentioned her previously —Holly Palmer. How did this association come about? And now a tune of hers is on the album.

Vu: Yeah. She's one of my best friends ever. I met her in high school. She went to a different school —all the high schools in my area [Seattle] had really good jazz programs, and the first time I saw her, she sang with her [high school] big band, and I could not believe how good she was. I thought, "She's gonna be a star." Unbelievable. Kicked my ass. At that time I was always comparing myself to everybody, and wanting to be better. And she kicked my ass —and not only that —she's also a really good-looking girl, so I wanted to get to know her. And we kept on running into each other, and we hooked up, as friends. We had a mutual respect for one another's musical abilities, so we stayed friends through college, and she came to Boston, mainly because I told her that she needed to get out of that area if she wants to be anything. And she came to Boston and we lived together, I always wanted to work with her, but at that time I was studying jazz, and —well she was also studying jazz, but she was going to be a pop star. And I wanted to do pop music too but I didn't know how yet. And so many years later, after talking about how we're going to work with each other, I couldn't figure out how we could do it. And not having me play "pop" music, which I felt like I wouldn't be able to fit in, and not really be able to explore. And I didn't want her to "scooby doodoo" on my music. So it took a while, but now I finally figured out how to put those two musics together. And I think "Bound" is a good example of that. Of how pop music can also be really avant-garde and creative at the same time.

Tafuri: And nice vocals, too.

Vu: I sang in high school. I had a cover band. We did Duran Duran, Police, and I sang and played keyboards. And I've always wanted to sing, but was too chicken. And I was going to have her sing on the record, but it was apparent that she was going to be too busy at this time to work a lot, so I thought, well, I'm going to have to take over the chair, because I wrote all these pieces that I was going to do in this band with her. For a while that idea was in my head —that I have to practice singing, and I want to sing, and after practicing for a while I felt, "I'm not going to do this —I suck," and I was going to ask her to sing on the record, but then I felt if I did that I would be chickening out. And whenever I feel like I'm chickening out, I need to overcome that fear. Cause it's only fear. So that's why I did it.

Tafuri: That aversion thing again. Averting fear this time. A powerful motivating force in you life. How about "The Drift"?

Vu: That piece was influenced by Madonna. I wrote that in college, too. The way we did it originally doesn't sound anything like the version now. Cause now we have a really good grasp of free improvisation and also how to use the tune without being restricted the way a lot of jazz people are restricted by the tunes that they play.

Tafuri: So yet another example that something with a more "pop" sound can have some meat on it.

Vu: Yeah. The key is just finding out how to open it up, and discovering what is important about the tune that we have to work on as a motive in the improv.

Tafuri: Where is Cuong Vu going now? What monster is behind him, motivating him now?

Vu: Well the big motivation now is to be able to make any kind of music that I want to. But before can I do that I have to produce music that people want to listen to. And that record labels want to put out. So that's motivating me right now. Eventually it would be great to just do anything that I want to do, cause I don't know who's going to come into my life, will make me want to "not be like him or her," or give me a concept that I don't want to have! (laughs) I don't know what I'll be averting next. Things change every minute. I change my mind a lot. I don't know —I just want to be able to do what I want to do. I don't want to be an unhappy sideman, I don't want to do stupid gigs. I just want to hang, and chill, and have fun.

Tafuri: I think we got it. One more question that I often ask: If you could have a band of any players, from anywhere, living or dead, who would be in that band?

Vu: It's the group that you have on your label. [on Bound] Those guys are the baddest. People can say John Coltrane, and I say, Jamie Saft, and Stomu Takeishi.

Tafuri: Cool.

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