Cuong Vu, 'It's Mostly Residual' (2005)

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.

Medeski Martin & Wood, 'End of the World Party (Just in Case)' (2004)

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.)


So here's an album title that hasn't lost its bite, huh? End of the World Party (Just in Case) was the fifth Blue Note album by Medeski Martin & Wood, which had also released material on Gramavision and elsewhere. What the album signaled, along with a tongue-in-cheek alarum about our state of affairs, was an evolution in the band's balancing act. 

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MMW — John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums, Chris Wood on bass — had famously come together as an avant-garde acoustic proposition, only gradually finding its purpose as the thinking person's jam band. There'd even been a return to those acoustic roots on the live album Tonic, recorded in 1999 at the Lower East Side haunt of the same name. A sizable portion of the MMW fan base celebrated this side of the band's sound, alongside the more groove-centric, organ-forward stuff. What not everybody realized, certainly not on the jazz side of the fence, was that the members of the band truly drew no distinctions between these means and modes.

But End of the World Party (Just in Case) does belong more squarely to one side than the other. And a lot of that has to do with its design. For this album, MMW enlisted John King as producer. As a member of the Dust Brothers, he'd helped create the distinctive, allusive sound of Paul's Boutique, by the Beastie Boys, and Odelay, by Beck. And you can clearly hear his influence on the album, notably in the first few tracks, which inhabit an air of foreboding even as they shift almost constantly from one set of textures to the next.

See for instance "Reflector," one of several tracks to feature a guest turn by guitarist Marc Ribot. It begins with twangy guitar and chattering clavinet, but soon also incorporates Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano and what sounds to me like another set of analog synths. The thrust of Martin's beat doesn't change all that much, but the context around it does, almost constantly: I hear a series of threaded arguments, presented in sequence, à la the Dust Brothers' signature approach. Listen to the section that begins with a sampled vocal, just before the three-minute mark. When Medeski adds a chiming piano part, it always reminds me of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. But it's here and gone in a few seconds; by 3:30, he's playing a crooked montuno, which provides the track with its fade-out.

Other tracks on the album inhabit a more typically organic, go-where-the-groove-leads vibe. They sound more temperamentally upbeat, too. So Medeski Martin & Wood were hardly articulating their new direction with End of the World Party; they were just adding another set of possibilities, and showing that they could go this route if they wanted to. Just in case.

Buy End of the World Party (Just in Case) at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Tim Berne, 'Science Friction' (2002)

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.)


For a few years in the early 2000s, I saw an awful lot of Tim Berne. Mostly in the Old Office space at the Knitting Factory, where the dimensions were tight and the sound could be fierce.

The group that set the bar then was Bloodcount, a take-no-prisoners quartet with Berne on alto and baritone saxophones, Chris Speed on tenor, Michael Formanek on bass and Jim Black on drums. This band had all the fury and combustion of a postpunk band, but with the spontaneous agility of the best sort of jazz combo. (For the full immersion, consult the Screwgun Records page on Bandcamp.)

At some point in 2001, Berne began bringing around a different foursome. This band featured the gonzo French guitarist Marc Ducret; the quick-flash drummer Tom Rainey; and the revelatory keyboardist Craig Taborn, often using borrowed analog synths and Fender Rhodes. I knew Taborn then as the pianist in James Carter's Young Lionish band of the '90s. Here he seemed to be spiraling out into some outer nebula, expanding the texture and tonality of the band in ways that felt thrillingly in-the-moment, even almost illicit. 

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As you can imagine, I was gobsmacked by Science Friction, the album that this group eventually released. Here was a new paragon of Berne's long-form compositional strategies, with warped echoes of early-'70s Miles Davis, the late-'80s downtown scene, and the eternal verities of the AACM. 

And whereas Bloodcount conveyed a feeling of sweat and toil, the band on Science Friction sounded elliptically, enigmatically cool, like something that had just tumbled out of the hatch of an alien spacecraft. I can still identify with this impression when I listen to the album today; check out the opening track, "Huevos," below, and see what you feel.

Nils Petter Molvær, 'Solid Ether' (2000)

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.)


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Solid Ether opens in the established vein of an ECM Records release. Solo trumpet. Whispery, poignant, Nordic. A slow accumulation of glassy underlay. This is Nils Petter Molvær, not quite 40 at the time, setting up one hell of a gut punch.

It lands almost precisely at the two-minute mark: a shuddery premonition of electronics, and then a hard, full-blown drum-n-bass groove. Anyone who'd been paying close attention was primed for this — the previous Molvær album on ECM, Khmer, pointed the way — but still, the lunging audacity of this music was a shock, if not entirely a surprise.

Shock is easy, though. What elevates Solid Ether and its indelible opening track, "Dead Indeed," is the care and concentration that Molvær brings to his sculptural treatment of a theme. I remember a lot of jazz-meets-electronic dilettante-ism on the scene at the turn of the century, but here we have a true connoisseur of the form — a sonic collagist who understands the art of layering, the potential of the technology, and the timeless value of melody. (Hear the floaty trumpet-and-synth theme that moves, implacable, over the heave and growl in the bass clef. "Solid ether" indeed.)

Elsewhere on the album, there are contributions from DJ Strangefruit, a bassist and a pair of drummers. But "Dead Indeed" features only guitarist Eivind Aarset and Molvær himself — on synthesizer, sampler, loops and various other effects. I've seen him pull off this sorcery live, and it's as impressive at it seems. What it augured in 2000 was a smarter, more fully syncretic brand of electro-jazz (ugh, that ungainly term) that was beginning to find purchase in the mainstream.

Buy Solid Ether from Amazon or stream it on Spotify.