Cuong Vu, 'It's Mostly Residual'

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu was part of a small wave of Seattle musicians who hit the downtown scene in New York at the same time, in the mid-1990s, after their conservatory studies in the Boston area. Among the others in this peer group were clarinetist and saxophonist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black; they enlisted Vu in an electroacoustic band called yeahNO, alongside wizardly Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson. (I wrote about Black, Speed and Sverrisson in the first entry on the 129 Essential Albums list.)

I first saw yeahNO at the Knitting Factory, circa 1997. Not long afterward, they played the inaugural show presented by Ars Nova Workshop in Philly, and I was there for that, too. What instantly captivated me about Vu’s presence in the band was the way he created depth through texture, manipulating sound as sound, rather than simply reordering a set of established trumpet protocols. I remember speaking with him around this time about his instinct as an improviser, and he pegged himself as a contrarian: when things were getting really heated on the bandstand, he liked to get quiet and smoldering; when things were turning glassy in their calm, he entrusted himself with the mantle of disruption.

You could say that Vu carried this strategy of resistance into his own albums, starting around this time. I believe it was his fourth album, Come Play With Me, that caught the attention of guitarist Pat Metheny, when he heard it on an internet radio stream. Always one to follow his ear, Metheny got in touch with Vu, and soon drafted him into the Pat Metheny Group. To those who had been following Vu since his arrival in New York, this was a somewhat surreal moment, like watching someone get called up, unexpectedly, to the major league. (I recently wrote here about The Way Up, featuring this edition of the PMG.)

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Vu made It’s Mostly Residual in 2005, and in some ways the album reflects a restatement of core convictions. Like Come Play With Me, it showcases his profoundly intuitive rapport with electric bassist Stomu Takeishi. They work alongside drummer Ted Poor and a marquee guitarist — not Metheny, but his contemporary and fellow searcher, Bill Frisell.

The writing is terse and insinuative, with melodic forms that are clearly designed to open up and breathe. And Frisell is hardly the only improviser here to employ electronics; Takeishi and Vu are equally deft with looping and other effects. But through it all, Vu upholds a melodic agenda. Listen to the way the title track comes into bloom; it’s outrageously beautiful, and even now it feels like a sort of magic trick.

Vu has gone on to do excellent work both as an artist and an educator: in 2010, I met up with him in Seattle, to which he’d returned, for a story about that city’s jazz ecology. He’s the chair of jazz studies at the University of Washington, where his students have included some sharp young rule-breakers. And he has made some find subsequent albums — including Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny (2016) and Change in the Air, again with Frisell (2018).

Purchase It’s Mostly Residual on Bandcamp, or stream it on Spotify.