The leading trumpet players of the last several decades coaxed no shortage of distinctive sounds out of the instrument. Miles Davis was known for evoking extraordinary pathos. Wynton Marsalis can make it sing with astounding clarity. And Jon Faddis can play in an upper register so high that you might wonder if the notes are off the chart.
But Cuong Vu, who has been rising steadily on the avant-garde scene, has still managed to find a unique approach to the instrument. He has recorded three albums as a leader and, because he takes the trumpet into uncharted territory, he's been recruited to work with an eclectic array of jazz, pop, and avant-garde artists, including Pat Metheny, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Dave Douglas.
Each track on a Cuong Vu album is a sonic journey. It could be hauntingly melodic ("Dreams, Come Play With Me") or wildly primal ("Faith"). Or, like "Vina's Lullaby," it might start melodically, but as the music progresses, all three instruments --- trumpet, bass, and drums --- grow in presence and character. After building to an abstract climax, the piece comes to a melodic resolution.
To communicate through his unusual musical language, Vu's knowledge of the trumpet must be augmented by a thorough understanding of electronic devices.
"I run [the trumpet] through a Lexicon mpx100 for some reverb and ambient delay," he says. "Then I split that sound into two paths that I send through two separate delay pedals. One is a Boss DD20 that has 20 seconds of sound-on-sound looping and various other delay settings. The other is a D.O.D. 4-second delay pedal that also has sound-on-sound capabilities. They each give me independent loops that I can layer and take out or change in an improvisatory way."
His group's bassist, Stomu Takeishi, has his own set of similar devices; only drummer John Hollenback remains acoustic.
When Vu writes, he does not employ traditional forms or even traditional ways of conveying melody and harmony.
"I just try to come up with 'songs' that have a really strong vibe and suggest a direction for the improvisations," he says. "Stomu and I have spent a great deal of time talking about our approach as well as working on it in a really focused way. We have kind of a set of rules about certain things to help us avoid the potholes of free improvisation and the meanderings that are inherent in improvised music."
Vu was born in Vietnam to a musical family. His father played drums and guitar in a band and later took up saxophone and trumpet; his mother was a singer. Vu has only vague memories of Vietnam.
"We were poor and lived in a storefront that was a motorcycle-bicycle repair shop," he says. "The back portion had a kitchen and the upstairs had two bedrooms. There were eight people living in it and it was cramped and crude compared to what my living conditions are today."
Vu, his mother, and sister were among the thousands air-lifted out of Vietnam at the end of the war. His father stayed behind to take care of his parents.
"I vaguely remember my dad saying goodbye. He was filled with this morose sense of sadness that I didn't understand," he says. "Suddenly, I was in a van with some of my relatives going somewhere. Then I got separated from my mom (but I was with my grandma) as we boarded the cargo planes. That really freaked me out and I cried like hell. I remember sitting in the darkness of the plane looking at the American soldiers in their gear and with their guns. The last thing I remember of that was being at Camp Pendleton in California.
"Looking back, the conditions were really uncomfortable, but at that time, I had a ball. I felt extremely excited, though I don't think I knew why. And I have to say --- in light of all the bullshit going on in Iraq with the mistreatment of prisoners and even civilians --- back then the soldiers were really cool. They took care of us, played with us, gave us chocolates. They set up a big screen and showed Bugs Bunny cartoons that I loved!"
Vu and his family ended up in a house in Redmond, Washington, with four other families.
"That was a blast!"
Not long after Vu arrived in the US, his mother gave him a trumpet.
"I was excited. I was 7 or 8. Any kid would be excited to get a shiny, weird, instrument.
When he was 11 his father arrived from Vietnam and enrolled him in a school music program.
"While I loved music and was excited about participating, I thought that the trumpet was a pretty geeky instrument. I wanted to play drums or guitar. My dad played the trumpet in Vietnam, and from his perspective and experience, trumpet players made more money and had more stable work than drummers and guitarists, so he made me stick with the trumpet."
In high school, Vu joined the big band and played jazz but he found himself gravitating toward rock-based fusion with highly skilled soloists who played faster, higher, and louder.
"The stuff that was the most musical that I was checking out was the Pat Metheny Group; I loved their records. The one thing that bothered me back then was that there weren't enough kick-ass solos. It's so funny how incredibly immature I was. I guess I should have been checking out more Van Halen and AC/DC."
When it came to the trumpet, Vu liked Clifford Brown's The Beginning and the End, especially the solo on "A Night in Tunisia." He also remembers liking Clark Terry. Even later, in college, he didn't relate to much jazz. But there were exceptions: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Kenny Wheeler's Gnu High, and Lee Morgan's Sidewinder.
His mastery of the trumpet was enough to earn him a full scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music. But, he says, he didn't go there for the right reasons.
"I went there because people said it was a great school and it was in Boston where a couple of my friends were studying," Vu says. "I just didn't know specifically what I wanted out of school and was expecting a school to just make me a good musician and give me the formula for becoming a good musician.
"I slowly started to figure it out by being exposed to a lot of heavy music, specifically from the classical music courses that I was required to take," he says.
At the Conservatory he hooked up with saxophonist and faculty member Joe Maneri, a pioneering avant-garde composer and player.
"I learned a lot about free group improvisation. The most important thing that he impressed upon me was the spirit of searching for the unknown," Vu says. "Just trying to make music without depending on the musical devices that have been proven, done, and overdone."
After graduating, Vu moved to New York and established himself in the downtown experimental music scene that developed around the Knitting Factory. He began to play with different groups and record his own albums.
Guitarist Pat Metheny happened to hear one of these albums on the radio while he was in the middle of putting together a new band. A few years ago, in an interview, Metheny enthusiastically recounted the story of trying to find the trumpet player. He said he'd heard the name Cuong Vu, but had no idea whether it was a group or a person. He asked around to no avail and then did the last thing he could think of --- he looked in the phone book.
Vu picks up the story.
"One day I was practicing and the phone rings. The answering machine in the next room picked up and I listened for a moment and heard, 'My name is... (inaudible)... and I just called to say that I'm a big fan....' I started practicing again, thinking, man, this dude has to stop calling me. I thought it was one of a couple of guys who called me saying they liked my music and that they were really good musicians and I should hire them. I didn't bother listening to the message.
"Three days later, my girlfriend came into my practice room and said, 'Uh... honey... there's a message for you from Pat Metheny.' I thought it was a friend of mine from high school messing around. But when I listened to it, it sounded like Pat's voice, so I called him back and was really excited and freaked. With the direction that I had taken in the previous seven years or so, I never thought that anyone from that scene, much less Pat Metheny, would call me. I mean, I'd get it if like Lester Bowie or Ornette Coleman had called, but Pat Metheny? The next day we met and talked and played a little bit, and then he asked me if I would audition for his band."
Vu passed the audition, recorded with the group, and went on tour.
Vu is now focused on his own music. He's been compared favorably to Bitches Brew-eraMiles Davis and has been garnering one rave review after another for taking the trumpet in a different direction.
But then, if anyone should know about changes in direction, it's Vu. His entire world took a life-changing detour when he got on that plane from Vietnam.
Does he ever consider what he'd be doing if there had been no unrest, no reason to leave Vietnam?
"I'd be one of three things: musician, a carpenter, or an auto mechanic. That's what my dad did," Vu says. "I'd probably be poor but wouldn't mind because I probably wouldn't know any better. Beyond that it's hard to say."