The Cuong Vu Connection

Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny (Nonesuch, 2016)

vu-methenyHere’s how the story was told to me, by members of a Brooklyn free-jazz trio called Birth, circa 2000. Cuong Vu came home one day to a voicemail message saying: “Hi. My name’s Pat Metheny? I’m, uh, a musician…?”

And that’s how jazz star Metheny recruited Vu, a New York trumpeter hanging with the downtown scene, into this band. Metheny had heard Vu’s music and immediately heard a fit that he wanted to explore, so he dug up Vu’s phone number and tried his luck.

Metheny gets mentioned on these pages a lot more often than you’d think. But that’s because, despite his reputation for playing nice yuppie coffee-table jazz, he has an interest in free playing and noise.

Vu’s story is similar but flipped. He was part of the downtown NYC crowd but had a penchant for more lyrical, atmospheric playing — accessible stuff, in other words. At KZSU, one DJ who could never understand the whole free-jazz/free-improv thing made a point of telling me how much he loved that new Cuong Vu CD we’d added to rotation.

So in a lot of ways, the two make a good mix. Looking at it from Metheny’s point of view, Vu had the combination of atmosphere and edge that figures prominently in Metheney’s music.

Cuong Vu Trio is Vu’s band, so they play by Vu’s rules. Their new CD with Metheny has plenty of niceness, but what lands the CD on this blog are the wide-open stretches on tracks like “Acid Kiss” (below) and “Tiny Little Pieces.” Vu is happy to take his trio off the rails and seek what directions they can find, and when Metheny joins in with his trademark synth guitar sound — the one that, come to think of it, sounds like a horn — you get a gloriously noisy, tangled mix.

As for the side of Cuong Vu that that other DJ liked so much — it’s here, too. “Let’s Get Back” is sweet and spacious, with some light guitar menace added for weight.

It’s good to see this collaboration continue. Metheny plus Vu makes a lot of sense to me.