Q&A: Cuong Vu

Q&A: Cuong Vu

May 25, 2011 Off By The Jazz Messenger

Cuong Vu has been one of the most creative musicians in jazz since the late 1990’s. I remember first hearing his album Bound in 2000 and being blown away by the sheer scale of the music featured on that recording. His later album called Come Play With Me was even better. In 2003, I remember seeing him perform brilliantly with Pat Metheny Group – a stint that lasted for many years. What’s so exciting about Cuong is that he is unpredictable and his music contains a great variety of moods and textures that consistently take the listener on spectacular aural journey. When I got a hold of his latest recording Leaps of Faith, it was another reminder of how special he is as a trumpeter, band leader and innovative voice in jazz. We got a chance to talk to Cuong Vu about his new album, influences and more in this Q&A. – JV

What was the first album you ever purchased?
I don’t know if I should be admitting this but…the soundtrack to Grease. You can store that under guilty pleasures. Acutally…when I’ve listened to some of those tunes again, I thought they were very well written and performed. And I still get as into it as I did as a kid.

Who are your main musical influences & why?
So many…off the top of my head, in this moment (I bet it would be a different list if I were to jot it down on another day):
Trumpet – Clifford Brown
Melodic/Lyrical approach – Pat Metheny
Drama, Form, Orchestration – Beethoven
Pushing the envelope while still succeeding in making soulfull, moving music – Gyorgi Ligeti

There are a lot more…it’s just hard to think of all of them and categorize and prioritize them. I’d rather not even try because they’re all important to me somehow. I can say though that the person who had the most personal impact on me was Joe Maneri. He was the one that nudged me into the direction that I’ve been on since. The journey of finding my own thing and looking forward, searching and never settling, came directly out of his being in my life.

To you, what is the essence of great jazz?
Off the top of my head, these are important to me in jazz music – freedom, improvisation, assimilation, transformation, evolution, research and innovation, all for the sake of original expression. But I prefer not to intellectualize these things. It’s a great exercise, but it takes away too much mystery sometimes. I just want to hear something that resonates with me and moves me.

What album do you return to when you want to recharge your creative batteries & why?
I don’t have one of those. It changes as I go through my musical life. Right now at this particular phase, I’m having a difficult time liking anything.

What is the inspiration behind Leaps of Faith?
I wanted to apply what Stomu, Ted and I had been working on for the last 8 years in developing our language and approach to some jazz repertoire. While I’d been more “hands on” about the approaches to my own pieces for my previous recordings, I was hoping that the band would just do it’s thing intuitively and free of me dictating so that it would be a complete and equal band effort in the arrangements of the tunes. I also wanted the listener to be able to draw the connection to my own pieces and how we’ve approached my music. Leaps of Faith is code for Giant Steps, and the track pretty much sums up our intentions for the record. The title also reflects that I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out and just had to just let go of my usual “control freak” approach an put all trust in us as a musical collective.

Can you discuss the importance in putting a new spin on traditional repertoire in terms of the progression of jazz as an art form?
Well, aside from doing things out of the pure joy that you get out of doing something that you love, I feel strongly that there’s really no reason to put out any music to the public unless it reveals a personal approach, vision…that it reveals the things that are unique to the individual expressing him/herself.

And to me, Jazz started out as progressive music. It’s essence from the beginning, is about innovation. It originated from and should still be about taking elements from different sources to form itself and through sheer genius and innovation, make a coherent and complete musical…I can’t find the right word…lasting phenomenon, so to speak (I would use the word GENRE, but that is too insignificant to use to describe JAZZ since it is so much more than a genre just as western classical music is more than a genre). So I feel that all jazz musicians have a responsibility to keep jazz as a progressive art form whether or not one’s own musical output is pushing the music forward. I feel that we all owe it to the music to push it forward whether it is in our output or in being open and embracing of new thoughts, ideas and approaches while encouraging those around us, especially the younger generations, to be aware and accepting of these new ways of thinking in addressing the music. We as individuals and as a collective are continually evolving and if art doesn’t evolve with us it becomes useless.

Can you tell us how you came up with the title track (Leaps of Faith)?
Leaps = Giant Steps. Faith correlates with the fact that I was trusting that applying my musical approach (which, surprisingly to me, is regarded as radical and avant-garde) to some repertoire belonging a tradition would hopefully, somehow all work out in producing some good art music.

How did you choose the cover tunes on the album (Something & My Opening Farewell)?
All the tunes took along time to choose but those in particular, just came from going with whatever resonated with and moved me the most.

What do you feel is the most misunderstand positive attribute about jazz as an art form?
It’s a vehicle that provides the most malleability for progress and evolution, able to easily absorb and assimilate any music into it’s own DNA and still retain itself. It’s so disappointing that we have so many influential people out there trying to keep it in a box and keep it from naturally changing/evolving. I feel that they are doing harm to the very thing that they are trying to preserve.

Leaps of Faith
Come Play With Me
Cuong Vu