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Artist Profile: Trumpeter Cuong Vu


Cuong Vu Trumpet
© Virginia Valdes


1969 in Saigon, South Vietnam

Trumpeter, Composer, Innovator, Professor:

Trumpeter Cuong Vu has developed a unique approach to the trumpet in his own projects and as a sideman with some top-flight jazz musicians. Vu has made extensive use of electronics and the kind of screeching and wailing trumpet effects pioneered by players like Waddada Leo Smith and Bill Dixon. His groups, Cuong Vu Trio and Vu-Tet, play rock-infused music with long, narrative improvisations that are energetic and mysterious. Behind these musical explorations are Vu’s earnest melodic phrasing and his unique compositional voice.

Cuong Vu emigrated from Vietnam when he was six years old. His parents both dabbled in music, and they gave him his first trumpet when he was 11. He later studied jazz at the New England Conservatory on a scholarship, where one of his professors, multi-reedist Joe Maneri, encouraged him to find his own voice on the trumpet and as a composer. Vu incorporated his jazz studies with his interest in modern and post-modern classical music, and developed what has become his signature approach to playing and composing. That has earned him spots in the bands of Myra Melford and Grammy-winning Pat Metheny Group on The Way Up.

Vu is a professor of jazz studies at the University of Washington in his home-town of Seattle. Not content to use Seattle merely as a base of operations for his own touring and recording, Vu has made an intentional effort to help his students create and enliven their own scene in the Pacific Northwest city. His efforts, and those of the many other creative musicians there, have been successful as Seattle boasts one of the best and most vibrant jazz scenes in the smaller cities of the United States.

Cuong Vu is known for his instantly recognizable sound. On his albums with his trio, Vu smears and distorts the sound of the trumpet, using looping pedals to keep these sounds floating around the rhythm section’s churning rock grooves. But Vu is able to play the trumpet in many other ways. His 2011 album, Leaps of Faith (Origin Records) finds Vu with Ted Poor on drums, Stomu Takeishi and Luke Bergman both playing electric bass with effects, playing distinctive, yet recognizable versions of “All The Things You Are,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Body and Soul,” three tried and true jazz standards played by pretty much every jazz musician on recordings, and at gigs and jam sessions.

On “Leaps of Faith” Vu makes a leap back toward his jazz roots, but he does it with his uniquely lyrical and warm trumpet playing as well as his distorted trumpet sounds and electronics. This track also includes some use of looping and features inventive bass and drum rock feels from Poor and Bergman, and the characteristically abstract accompaniment of swirling chords and strange sounds from Takeishi, who is freed from playing bass lines and takes the opportunity to play a shape-shifting foil to Vu’s trumpet lines. This album adds variety to Vu’s recorded output while still focusing on the lyricism paired with abstraction that made his previous albums so interesting. It is a welcome addition to an already solid and original discography.

Splitting his time between education, performance and composition, Vu is a dynamic and productive musician who will continue to influence young musicians of the next generation.

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