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.

Jenny Scheinman, '12 Songs'

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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Jenny Scheinman was hardly fresh off the boxcar when she released 12 Songs, in the fall of 2005. A violinist and composer known for bringing an air of rusticity to the most modern settings, she was in her early 30s, with an already-strong track record behind Bill Frisell and others; this was the fourth album under her name.

For many observers, though, 12 Songs represented a breakthrough. Scheinman made the album with a septet that included Frisell and longtime compadre Ron Miles on cornet, as well as keyboardist and accordionist Rachelle Garniez, clarinetist Doug Wieselman and others. The writing is spare, yet full of emotional color; it feels lived-in, unguarded. Its affinities with Frisell’s music are obvious — listen back as far as This Land, from 1994 — but don’t feel at all calculated. This is the music that Scheinman was truly feeling, and it pointed the way forward for her in many respects.

A few years later, when Scheinman was officially branching out as a singer-songwriter, I wrote a profile for the NY Times, speaking with her about a distinctly rural childhood along the California coast. For the piece, I also solicited some thoughts from Frisell, who had this to say:

A song isn’t just a sort of mathematical puzzle for her; it has a real emotional meaning. She can play out or free or whatever, but you always hear that center, that melody thing, which is so important.

You hear that quality on 12 Songs, just as you do on Scheinman’s more recent musical output, including Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a film-and-music presentation that I was fortunate enough to see at the 2018 Big Ears Festival. She is currently on tour with drummer Allison Miller, not only in Miller’s band Boom Tic Boom but also in a jointly led project called Parlour Game. Her artistry runs like a clear beam through whatever setting; for me, 12 Songs is where it first came into perfect focus.

Purchase 12 Songs at Cryptogramophone, or stream it at Apple Music or Spotify.

Paul Motian / Bill Frisell / Joe Lovano, 'I Have the Room Above Her' (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.)


Paul Motian has already surfaced twice in the 129 Essential Albums List, and he'll turn up again. This is the album that I really consider as his, featuring one of the greatest working bands I've had the privilege to experience in a room. 

For the most part, that room was the Village Vanguard, where Motian, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell were a beloved fixture for something like 30 years. After Motian decided to stop touring, around 2003, he became even more of a Vanguard staple, almost a mascot. And the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio was his flagship group, the one that best crystallized his gift for melodic abstraction and plasticized rhythm. 

I must have seen the trio at the Vanguard a dozen times over the years. One set that stands out happened in 2004, as the Bush-era Republican National Convention was in town — with Professor Irwin Corey, a favorite of the Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, serving as a politically subversive intermission act. Reviewing that gig for the Village Voice, I wrote: 

Lovano’s tenor saxophone cooed and cried on “Don’t Explain,” nudged along by soft Frisell guitar arpeggios. They played in chorus at the start and finish of Motian’s compositions, which have the pliant, patient certainty of folk songs. In between were innumerable fine details: Frisell’s spontaneous architecture of sampled zips and pings, the sizzle of rivets on Motian’s cymbal at a pregnant pause.

The following spring, ECM released I Have the Room Above Her, a sublime album that capitalizes on the individual strengths of each musician, and the indefinable strength they managed as a unit.   This album stands, for me, as one of the ensemble's great statements. I wrote about it for JazzTimes, and I'm enclosing the full review below; my thoughts on the matter haven't changed much, except for the fact that I am all the more convinced of its timeless appeal.


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It’s been 20 years since drummer Paul Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano recorded It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, the ECM album that kicked off their trio collaboration. In the interim, the ensemble has worked together more or less steadily: playing to packed Village Vanguard crowds, touring Europe and recording a couple of gems for Winter & Winter/JMT. Still, this return to ECM feels like a major milestone as well as a reprisal.

The reason, quite simply, is the music. Motian and his younger cohorts have mastered the art of an avant-gardism that’s abstract but never shapeless, and thoroughly steeped in melodic yearning. Lovano’s tenor is alternately pleading, plaintive or exalting; Frisell employs his guitar as lead voice, harmonic glue and atmospheric scrim. As for their leader, Motian’s minimalist percussion is as subtle and steady as a heartbeat, even when it more readily suggests a cardboard box tumbling down the stairs.

Motian composed nearly all of the songs here; the exceptions are the title track (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat) and the closing “Dreamland” (by Thelonious Monk, Motian’s lodestar and, briefly, his boss). Not surprisingly, the entire program hews to the drummer’s guiding aesthetic, which might best be described as an exaltation of the subconscious. So we get what sounds obliquely like a border folk song (“Odd Man Out”), a playground chant (“The Bag Man”) and a high-wire balancing act (“Dance”). The A section of “One in Three” is effectively a bedtime lullaby, with Motian’s cymbals rusting the branches outside; the B section intrudes like a disquieting dream. In all the tunes, there are deceptively simple forms, a blend of wistfulness and whimsy and a sense of wonder at the world. Start to finish, this is music for the soul.

Purchase I Have the Room Above Her at ECM Records, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.