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Interview: Trumpeter Cuong Vu on His Approach to Jazz Standards

March 28th, 2011


Cuong Vu Trumpet
© Virginia Valdes
Trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu has cultivated a mysterious and yet warm lyricism over the course of his extensive career. He released Bound (Omnitone), his first album as a leader, in 1999. Since then he has achieved consistent acclaim for his simple, melodic improvisation, and the way he blends classical, rock, jazz, and electronic music in his instantly identifiable compositions.

Vu’s commitment to playing his own compositions seems to be a necessary part of his artistic statement, as his compositions are so deeply connected to his playing style. However, on his newest album, Leaps of Faith (Origin Records, 2011), which features drummer Ted Poor and bassists Stomu Takeishi and Luke Bergman, Vu shows how works by other composers can apply to his own vision as a performer. I spoke with Vu recently about his treatment of standard jazz repertoire on Leaps of Faith:

  • Douglas Detrick (DD): Your newest album Leaps of Faith is a decisive turn towards the jazz tradition compared to the previous albums you’ve made as a leader. You start with three standards, perhaps some of the most famous ones of all: “Body and Soul,” “All the Things You Are,” and “My Funny Valentine.” “Leaps of Faith” is based on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Also, you play tunes by George Harrison and Jackson Browne as well as two of your own compositions. How important is repertoire in finding room for your own sound as a musician? In other words, how important is the tune to you?

    Cuong Vu (CV): These tunes are part of the body of work that people consider to be played too many times; to be beaten to death. This body of work is also what I (and just about every other student in college) had to learn in college. I had completely stopped playing standards when I got out of college, but when I got a teaching position at the University of Washington, I had to go back and refresh them so that I could demonstrate for my students and to play with them. As I did that, I started to understand them more deeply and some of them really resonated with me.

    I started incorporating some of them on some of my trio tours with Stomu (Takeishi) and Ted (Poor), and we quickly found that only a few of them lent themselves to new interpretations that are compatible with our improvisational approach. They also needed to be compatible with the musical language that we had developed together. So, it went beyond just loving the tune. Through trial and error we figured out which ones would serve as the right kind of canvas for us. It took time. There were some that were fun to play but we weren't able to really make them our own, at least not to my ears and not up to my expectations.

  • DD: Is it the way you play the tune more important than the tune itself, or do you feel that you needed the standard tunes on the album to make a different statement?

    CV: I think the answer to that was touched upon in the previous answer. They're equally important but in the end, they needed to be the right tunes for us. I think that everyone in the band has a unique musical personality that would come through on any piece we play. But as far as making a different statement that is really unique to how we collectively hear music, it came down to picking the right pieces.

  • DD: The process of developing repertoire over a longer period of time through rehearsal and performance seems very important to your creative process. Did approaching standards change this at all? Was the process at all different from developing your own compositions?

    CV: The process was the same for the most part. The big difference is that I didn't have as many specific approaches to the standards as I do with my own music. The guys in the band have a lot of freedom to mold my own tunes but I'm much more deliberate with how I want things to go for the framework of most of my material. For the standards, everybody had equal input in how they came out. I did call some shots when I had to but the whole process was very organic and very democratic and very intuitive. We didn't talk very much. We just played and figured it out over time without talking much about it. That is another thing that is very different from how we approach my tunes.

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