Cuong Vu 4Tet: Change in the Air

With guitarist Bill Frisell in tow, Seattle trumpeter Cuong Vu creates a dramatic set of all original tunes that reflects a cross-continental sensibility on Change in the Air.

Change in the Air
Cuong Vu 4Tet
28 September 2018

In 2007, trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu moved from New York to Seattle, where he teaches music at the University of Washington. Bill Frisell, the versatile guitarist, made the same move years before, and he just returned to New York recently. But the two overlapped on the west coast for over decade—along with bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor. The quartet recorded Ballet, a tribute to composer Michael Gibbs last year, and Vu and Frisell collaborated as far back as 2005 on Vu’s It’s Mostly Residual. Change in the Air is the hippest of their collaborations to date: a session of all-original music by all four members of the “4Tet”. And every tune is fascinating, a perfect match for this balanced, always-interesting band.

It is Frisell’s genius and generosity that, despite having a unique approach and distinctive guitar tone, he is a subtle partner in a band that is not his own, blending into the group sound with sympathy. Of course, the guitarist knows these players well, but it remains lovely to hear him phrase so gorgeously with the leader on Ted Poor’s fragile ballad “Lately”. Frisell chooses a particular tone that not only shares in the overtones of Vu’s trumpet but also seems to ring in sympathy with Poor’s melodic toms. Vu’s more geometric sounding “Round and Round” poses a different challenge for Frisell, as his guitar and the trumpet work in careful unison at first and then drift into a contrapuntal conversation that, ultimately, brings the whole quartet into collective improvisation. Amplified though he is, Frisell brings balance and gentleness to the sound of a band that, on its own, often rocks quite hard.

That rocking is best heard on another Vu original, “March of the Owl and the Bat”. Poor can be an emphatic drummer with precision and volume being used as tonal devices for him. He phrases along with the melody on head, working in locked-in care with bass, guitar, and trumpet once. As the groove develops, it is the trio (without Frisell) that works a thumping syncopated pattern, and ultimately Vu flies free as well, improvising like a controlled but ferocious thing as Poor’s drumming double-times into an almost metal-like power zone. Frisell sends his guitar into space as Vu’s playing becomes wilder and more abstract—and the whole band is suddenly gone… before the theme returns with puckish joy. Hoooo, yes.

Frisell offers three tunes, each a gem. “Look, Listen” is a languorous waltz that moves into a section of free, abstracted time. “Long Ago” is a simple, stately melody that covers a highly detailed arrangement—Poor providing martial snare rolls and Bergman using pedal tones and basic octaves and fifths to anchor things. You hear a small town funeral, perhaps, or just a slow breeze moving across the tumble-down landscape. “Far From Here” is one of those open-toned Frisell ballads that sounds like sad country music lit up with the harmonic shimmer of Aaron Copland but also tinged with blue notes, where the band can finally take it anywhere at all. Vu’s trumpet bends the melody tones, so his trumpet sounds like a mellow voice, even as the guitar wraps it in chiming harmonics.

Bergman’s one tune is a doozy, a chiming pop samba with strummy guitars that ultimately builds into a joyful wall of sound. Vu plays the melody without flash, but he also constructs a solo that embodies what is so strong about his playing. Even without being paired with another horn and even without reaching for silly high notes, he generates a full-bodied sound, and a sense of excitement created almost entirely from superb note choices. Your ears will follow him anywhere. “Must Concentrate” ends with a thrilling set of syncopations that drives the band toward a climatic ending.

Beyond his note choices and phrasing, Vu’s sound as a trumpet player is worthy of note. Like Miles Davis back the in the 1950s, Vu plays mostly in his lower and middle register, and he achieves a comfortable, perhaps gauzy tone there: full but soft, comfortable, luxurious without expressive glitz or show-biz vibrato. It seems odd to say this of a brass player, but his tone seems somewhat “woody” or buzzing with life, and then when it suits him, he growls and cackles or darts into the upper register to pop your ears with pure altitude. This the kind of virtuosity that seems modest until you actually listen to it and pay attention to the stories it is telling.

Vu’s two other tracks are one intriguing composition made for this band and played twice. “Round and Round” is titled perfectly, as trumpet and guitar chase each other in circles of melody, cycling and turning in hypnotic fashion, with Bergman’s bass joining the parade and then Poor’s kit also coming alive with call and response as all four bandmates seem to be lapping each other around the track. “Round and Round (Back Around)” is the same melody but taken in a different, more urgent direction by the band’s group improvisation, the two versions acting as introduction and coda to Vu’s other tune (“March of the Owl and the Bat”). We hear them not as two alternate takes but as different pieces of music because, ultimately, the canvases are the same, but the paintings are different and differently thrilling.

Geographic scenes in creative music have long been important. Internationally, jazz sounds different in Stockholm than in Los Angeles, and we have many ways to make sense of that, I suppose. Does it sound different in Seattle than in New York? Even when the players have deep connections to both places? Change in the Air doesn’t sound like much of the “new jazz” coming out of New York these days—it is more direct and less consumed with compositional complexity, even as it uses a similar approach to improvisation—meaning that it obeys the post-bop “inside” rules when it wants to and tosses them away when that works for the song. That may simply be a reflection of the melodic yet fierce sensibility of the leader, Cuong Vu. Or, given that this recording is somewhat reminiscent of another wonderful and recent session that featured Bill Frisell (Ron Miles’s I Am a Man from just a year ago), perhaps the guitarist’s presence means something. Of course, I Am a Man was also recorded outside of New York, west of the Mississippi.

Somewhere in this web of geography and identity, though, there is a good and true thing about this music, with its boundless freedoms that still exist within the exacting artistic structure: it allows for daring and beautiful personal expression. It remains one of the great achievements of our culture. These days, I want to add: “of our liberal democracy”, or perhaps it’s what that democracy can be when it is open to everyone’s voice. Which is why listening to Change in the Air (and thinking about the title) seems like a good move right about now.

RATING 7 / 10