Review: Cuong Vu

Cuong Vu, Vortex, 20 February 2012
Drawing by Geoff Winston.
Copyright 2012. All Rights Reserved
Cuong Vu
(Vortex, 20 February 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The Dutch bassist Bob van Luijt, still in his mid-twenties, has assembled a finely balanced trio consisting of himself, drummer Yonga Sun, with whom he crossed musical paths two years ago in Holland, and ground-breaking Seattle-based trumpeter, Cuong Vu.

Their single extended set took in seven van Luijt compositions and oozed natural empathy and instinctive dynamics. Tingling excursions into the funk zone – with crisp bass and drum duets reminiscent of Hunter and Amendola – mashed it up with undercurrents of menacing atmospherics wrought by Vu, who constructed rich, grainy textures and dangerous liaisons as he played off against his own sampled sonics, in the indistinct, abstract zone often associated with the Necks.

Van Luijt, on a custom crafted, light-hued electric bass, referenced the choppy, percussive dynamics of post-Headhunters funk and the flowing fretless drive of Jaco Pastorius, its clear, acoustic tone complemented by subtle electronic interventions and echoes. He found his voice in extended solos comprising fluid, melodic statements from which he returned with ease to the bassist’s more familiar supporting role. This was home territory for the precise, energetic Sun, who was not afraid to throw himself into the fray with alarming sharpness, or to subvert the metronomic concision with dreamy effects generated by holding the mike over the cymbals or close to hand-held clusters of threaded bells.

Cuong Vu’s contribution drew its power from his assured elision from tempered precision to layered imprecision. He is in that group of trumpeters who ceaselessly redefine the instrument’s possibilities – from Wadada and Jon Hassell to Peter Evans and Axel Dörner – and every so often there was a nudge towards Miles’s constant rule-breaking – with hints of Miles’s version of Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ surfacing intermittently.

Midway through the set, Vu’s bubbling, volcanic roar prefaced the release of a densely pressurised cloud of crushed abstraction, which bounced back and forth off the walls, eventually subsiding to a snail’s pace finale, imposing muddily indistinct structure on an inescapably powerful statement.

On ‘King Komodo’, Van Luijt’s funky, flighty bass line, à la Weather Report, and Sun’s hollow drum sound generated a momentum from which Vu launched off in a mercurial spin, contrasted on ‘Petit Bourdon’ (a reference to a low drone string of the hurdy-gurdy) by Sun’s eastern tinkling bells and cymbals which gave space for gliding bass lines and a round of haunting trumpet notes, each lingering electronically as Vu’s lips left the mouthpiece.

There was a sense of freshness about the whole performance, which was all the more impressive considering the trio’s schedule: they had rounded off a short tour of Holland, had just taught a masterclass to the jazz students at the Guildhall – including as much discussion as playing, they said – and were about to head straight back the following morning to record for Dutch TV at the Bimhuis. A return visit, even a short season, from this trio should be encouraged!

Bob van Luijt: electric bass
Cuong Vu: trumpet and electronics
Yonga Sun: drums

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