Q&A with Cuong Vu of Speak
Forward-thinking trumpeter Cuong Vu has performed with the likes of Pat Metheny, Laurie Anderson and David Bowie. He's toured the world and released four albums under his own name. After a stint in New York, Vu moved back to the Northwest, where he is now assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Washington.
It's there at UW that he coached an ensemble that included members of Speak. After mentoring the students -- saxophonist Andrew Swanson, keyboardist Aaron Otheim, drummer Chris Icasiano and bassist Luke Bergman -- forty-year-old Vu says he decided to join the band because the younger musicians "have the energy and they have a vision for the way things are done and it fuels me."
While they've all studied jazz at length, Speak's self-titled debut, shows how far the quintet's influences span, from avant-garde composer György Ligeti to the metal band Meshuggah. Or as Vu puts it, "It's almost like we're playing this experimental rock music that's coming out of being rooted in jazz music."
We caught up with Vu, who performs with Speak at Dazzle tonight (Tuesday, April 6) at 7 p.m., and spoke with him about playing with Speak, his experience with the the Pat Metheny Group, studying with Joe Maneri, recording with Denver's Ninth + Lincoln Orchestra and more.
Westword (Jon Solomon): What was it about Speak that made you want to join the band?
Cuong Vu: First of all, they're really great musicians, and they definitely have all their own perspectives and approaches. You know, the youth, they have the energy and they have a vision for the way things are done, and it fuels me. It informs my music, too. It's a lot of fun. It's something different and new for me.
WW: It seems like it's really some challenging music. Do you find it challenging at all?
CV: No. This music is like ear candy to me. It's really experimental, but having checked out experimental classical music and experimental rock and experimental jazz and all the avant-garde, you get to a stage where you just kind of expect the unexpected. And you're able to sit there and feel, basically, what the music has to offer, without having to rely on feeling comfortable, because your expectations are met.
And that, to me, is really fun and really exciting. So, all this stuff is not ... it's only when the music is not good, is when I feel uncomfortable. But if I'm really interested and it takes my attention and I'm gripped, I'm all good.
WW: Do you get something out of this group that you haven't gotten playing with other groups?
CV: Yeah. First of all, they are a collective of young people who are all friends and have developed, musically, together. That, in itself, is a really unifying and important thing for the sound of the band. But also, as I said before, it's just great to get the energy and perspectives of the younger generation.
WW: Since you're teaching younger musicians, how do see the future of jazz, or the shape of jazz to come?
CV: I think it's the same trajectory that it's been on, which is that jazz has always been about a fusion of elements of the times: When it first started out, it was really about taking the music that was happening at that time, late in the 1800s, which is marching band music, classical ballads and then the influences the slaves brought over from Africa. And that music just kind of fused into one thing that was meant to be commercial dance music -- party music of the times, for the people of the times to go out and have fun.
Still, I think the spirit of jazz is that way, and people who are looking for that swing and that old sound, they're going to be disappointed because that's not jazz anymore, what jazz was. Jazz today is really combining all the elements that are going on today, which are so many different things, but it's rooted in improvisation. That's really what it is. So, these guys are doing the same thing as the early guys were doing, but just the elements are different.
WW: What other types of elements are you guys all bringing to the group, as far different genres go?
CV: I guess the main thing -- because we all study jazz and really examine that music and the whole history and the way that it's done -- that is going to be the root of the music. And also we're incorporating all of our influences and all of the kinds of music that we love, including all the rock music we grew up listening to, or whatever it is.
Whatever the popular music or the underground music of the day, we're incorporating all of that in there. And then, being at school and being exposed to all the different music that rigorous studies also has to offer -- like classical music and contemporary classical music -- that plays a big role in how we approach the music, as well. So it's like a combination of all that stuff.
WW: How would describe what Speak does?
CV: Well, everybody in the band composes for the band, and the compositions are specific to the band. It brings out our chemistry. The band, overall, really likes rock music. It's almost like we're playing this experimental rock music that's coming out of being rooted in jazz music.
WW: One of the cuts on the Speak album sounds like the pianist is playing some '80s-era Robert Fripp guitar lines on piano, and on a few cuts, the horn lines remind me of Kneebody a bit. There's definitely a lot of stuff going on there.
CV: Yeah. That's kind of what we're trying to do is just to take everything that we love and just put it in one coherent piece of, you know, our own music, I guess.
WW: When you first started playing jazz, what was it about improvised music that you dug?
CV: It was pretty easy, actually, because the educational system when I was kid really had two avenues if you're playing instrumental music: With band music, when you're playing a violin or a wind instrument, either you're going into legit classical music or you're going into jazz.
I did like reading music and playing as a group and all that kind of stuff, but a lot of times, I didn't like the music so much. So then, when I actually got to play jazz and got to make up things, it sounded pretty okay. And it was really fun; that's what sold me on improvisation and jazz in general.
WW: I was reading about how you studied with Joe Maneri, and sounds like he got you going on some cool stuff?
CV: Yeah, he had a gigantic impact on me. He just opened my mind up to a lot of different things that I hadn't checked out before, that I hadn't thought were legit ways of combing things or just approaching music in general. It's very much about freedom, freedom that's rooted in vigorous and rigorous study.
WW: What made you first want to use effect pedals with your trumpet?
CV: I kind of just wanted to be able to blend in with the instruments and the style of music that I was trying to get at better. So the effects have kind of helped the trumpet get into that sonic territory a little bit. But then when I got into it, I started doing more of the looping things, and that became an experiment in itself.
Those looping devices kind of became their own instruments. They became instruments and also became ... like, if it was a trio, those effects were like a fourth member of the band that you had to deal with. And it gave us this wild card to deal with that was really exciting and that made the music really fresh. But also we could be really specific with how we used the effects to orchestrate some of the sounds that we were using to paint the picture that we were trying to paint.
WW: How was your experience working with Pat Metheny and his group?
CV: It was a great learning experience, and mostly what I got out of it, was how Pat approaches the profession. He and Lyle, whatever they do, they don't leave any stones unturned. They try to take care of as many of the details as possible just to present the best music they can. And that really taught me a lot, about drive and going and making things happen, and not being lazy. You know, professionalism. I learned a lot about that.
WW: How did you like working with the Tyler Gilmore and the Ninth & Lincoln?
CV: That was really fun. I didn't know what to expect. When I came in, I realized that Tyler really took is seriously, that I was his feature in that music. A lot of the music he wrote was to frame what I did, and how I play. It worked really well. He really understands what I do. And then everybody in the band was really so cool.
It made things so easy because I was really the only who was soloing, so there was a lot of pressure. I was in the isolation booth by myself, apart from the band. There's pressure and you don't want to be judged negatively, like some kind of snob who's being featured. But everyone was so cool and they're great musicians too so that made that whole situation really fun.
WW: Do you have anything else in the works?
CV: I'm about to record a live record with my quartet, outside of this band. It's my old band with Stomu Takeishi and Ted Poor. We're kind of doing a set of standards that are kind of book-ended by some of my older music.