[6 February 2006]
Cuong Vu is a young trumpet player (and sometimes-vocalist) from Seattle. I first heard him on recordings by Pat Metheny Group; his stuttering whispering solos on last year’s The Way Up were, for me, the emotional highlights of that great album. When he’s on his own, Vu composes and plays a kind of music that is both jazz and not-jazz, post-rock without the pretention, metal without the cookie monster voice. Whatever it is, it’s brilliant…but it’s going to take me the whole review to explain what it sounds like. Because the problem is that Cuong Vu hates jazz. Of course, he also loves it. This ambiguity is how we get our best music. It’s fair to say that this is pretty freakin’ great.
The title song starts things off. It’s a low-key plod with a rising chord progression, slow and steady like an instrumental rock song (the Spanish groups Migala and Manta Ray come to mind). This song is driven by the formidable rhythm section of Stomu Takeishi on electric bass – my favorite jazz bassist for his work with Henry Threadgill – and Ted Poor on drums. There is a melody here, and it’s not so far removed from jazz, at least Metheny-style jazz. But this is broken up by the two featured soloists doing weird things: Vu produces whale sounds through his horn (a complicated thing that I think involves isolating the mouthpiece; I’m guessing here but we used to do this a lot in junior high band), and all-star guitarist Bill Frisell makes ambient quiet screaming noises to echo him. The two go back to playing the melody, but you can tell they’re getting ready to bust out; when they do at the four-minute mark, with some loud flanged-out echoey metal riffs, it’s a relief. But then we’re back to calm, with more of a buildup that bursts out fully, in glory, three minutes later. Truly a heroic piece of writing and playing, and a lesson for those artists that substitute flash for true musical tension.
The next piece, “Expressions of a Neurotic Impulse,” is more like regular old post-bop. It’s anchored by a really fast and repetitive Vu-tongued riff that serves as a refrain, but Poor quickly picks up the pace and sets the stage for a shred-fest of epic proportions. Frisell starts hammering out power-blasts and high-pitched stingers that really belong more on a Funkadelic album than anything that one could file under “jazz”. (Okay, fine, Miles was doing this in the early 1970s. But you know what I’m saying.) Everything starts to melt down into a big Sabbath-y stew, with Vu doing dive-bombing scream runs on his trumpet and layering them over and over with themselves, and then Frisell ups the ante, and then Vu tries to out-do him, and Takeishi and Poor are still hammering away, and it’s all quite beautiful and angry and weird.
These two templates are so good that the other tracks pretty much follow them. This is the biggest complaint that I have about It’s Mostly Residual—other than the inventiveness and power of the actual solos themselves, these pieces don’t really have any surprises for the listener. They either plod or they sprint, and they only build up in one of two ways. Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely love the way they do this. But I think Vu is still too much in Metheny’s shadow, compositionally, and maybe Sigur Ros and Tortoise too. I know this will change, though.
The other major problem I have is that too much of the exciting stuff is driven by Frisell’s stunning guitar heroics. Sure, if you have that arrow in your quiver, you have to use it. But Vu defers to his elder far too often for my taste, allowing the electric fireworks to overtake his own. Step up, young one, and assume the throne!
Don’t take these criticisms as any kind of sign that this album is weak or boring, because it’s not. There are Ornette-isms in “Blur,” and “Brittle, Like Twigs” sounds like Thelonious Monk and Television and Catalyst, and there are tons of moments where you are picking your jaw up off the pavement in wonder at what four humans can do. But as good as It’s Mostly Residual is, Vu will top it ten times over in his career, if he keeps his heart and ears open, and if he can vary up his frameworks just a bit. But yeah, Cuong Vu is going to be a major voice in jazz, if he can stand to keep making it.