Posted by flotz on Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | Interview

Cuong Vu plays The Triple Door on Tuesday, August 24th, 2010.  Should be a killer show. Got a chance to do an interview with him, in which we discuss jazz in academia, jazz/rock fusion and lots of other topics. Vu goes off!  Check it out:

artofthemix: Who are you playing with these days?

Cuong Vu: While I do a lot of sideman gigs, traveling to Europe, Canada, and Mexico, I primarily have two group that I'm focusing on at the moment.

I'm still working with my band which is now the trio with added bassist, Luke Bergman.  So it's with Ted Poor on drums and Stomu Takeishi on bass as well.

I'm also starting up another group with Andrew D'Angelo, Luke Bergman, and Evan Woodle.

artofthemix:  How is life as a UW faculty member?

Cuong Vu: I like the job very much.  It consumes me too much sometimes but I am very energized and excited by the relationships and exchanges with the students and the amazing progress that they make.  And I'm learning from the experience.

artofthemix: How important is academia and the university system to the perpetuation of jazz?

Cuong Vu: The way that it's been codified and generally done in the majority of the schools (at least in the U.S.) is actually and has been snuffing the life out of jazz.  Much of the music that is being made these days is either a poor carbon copy of what happened decades ago or is a completely superficial and is attempt at commercialism that shoots for the lowest common denominator.  I find that most jazz musicians (well most musicians in general) only know of the music that they do and haven't checked out as much music from other genres or cultures (or even the cultures and trends of their surroundings) as possible so the music sounds singular in dimension.  The understanding of music then isn't universal in it's fundamentals and is instead an understanding of a music that is a caricature of itself, which then makes it harder for the audience to deeply connect with (not that that's the only problem).  I mean Radiohead, Bjork, Sigur Ros are all edge pushers whose music is complex and yet they have a huge followings.  It probably wouldn't be nearly as big without the vocals but I think that even if they did instrumental music, they'd still have a wider reach than the musicians who aren't as diverse in their musical research.

I put the blame squarely on the lame educational system that systemized jazz where it's teachers for the most part have forgotten that jazz was and should be about innovation and searching to push the music further and further while maintaining their connection to the undercurrents and trends of the present.  But now, the idea of the arts as something that is crucial to humanity is quickly dying off so many of the finest musicians who had been out in the world doing their thing, have to luck into a good teaching position in order to survive.  These world travelers are now bringing that experience that breadth of vision into the classrooms and it's breathing life into jazz education.

Now that these people are in academia and if more and more infiltrate, then things will start to drastically change for the better.  We need this to happen in the Jr. Highs and Highs School in order to really change things around.  Unfortunately the teachers in the grade school - high school are even less stellar than the ones I'm complaining about so that will be a harder barrier to penetrate.

So...wrapping this up, I think educating the future musicians is crucial.  But the other half that we have to take on is educating the future audiences as well.

artofthemix:  One of the defining aspects of the jazz/rock fusion I've been hearing these days (James Farm, Speak come to mind as far as shows I've seen lately) is the drummer playing on the beat instead of around the beat. Do you think our ear hungers for that cadence?

Cuong Vu: I'm not sure that I understand.  What is playing around the beat?  When I think of Lester Young or Louis Armstrong, I think of hard grooving swing and not about avoiding or blurring the beat.  They play with where the phrasing resolves and where they insinuate the one, but I hear them as playing "on the beat". Or do you mean that it's less syncopated these days and the beat is always spelled out, like 4 on the floor?

Anyway I'll assume that I understand and answer this way - I think that it's about the music.  Rock isn't about playing around the beat.  However, when it comes to the improvisation at least in Speak or in my groups or any of the great bands out there, I challenge you to find one. So...playing with time is still a part of the language as long as it fits into the narrative of the improv.

artofthemix:  Rock is kind of like electric folk -- it doesn't take a ton of talent or training to play rock. 3 chords, an amp and a backbeat.  And some attitude. Of course, that's a reduction, but hopefully you see what I'm getting at. Jazz, however, requires both talent and training.  So fusing them can make for a curious mix. Thoughts?

Cuong Vu: I think that in rock music, it's more likely that you can get away with not having a high level of mastery of musical skills.  But if you think of the greatest bands, they were bad asses that have technique.  Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Deerhoof, Meshuggah, Frank Zappa's bands, the list goes on and on.  Having a great groove/backbeat is not simple.  Making 3 chords sound interesting is not easy.  Getting a good sound out of an amp that is your own sound isn't something that just happens most of the time (requires great ears and understanding of the music and the musician's role in each piece and each section).  U2's guitarist, the Edge, is a master of getting sounds.

I think that the skill set can be really different from the one needed to play jazz but any band/musician that transcends and make impactful music, there has to have been a great deal of time, commitment and intensity spent on their craft.  And lots of jazz musicians would sound pretty stupid playing rock so...it goes both ways.

artofthemix: What did you have for breakfast?

Cuong Vu: My breakfast is coffee and the trumpet in my face for a few hours.  Today, it's coffee and an e-mail to you.