Cuong Vu 4TET, Ballet (Rare Noise)
Trumpeter Vu and three fellow Seattle adventurers explore pieces by Michael Gibbs. It was guitarist Bill Frisell’s idea to bring the British composer to the University of Washington last year for concerts of his orchestral music as well as sets by Vu’s quartet with Frisell, bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor. In a news release, Vu is quoted as saying that their aim was, “…our individual aesthetics coming together and trying to find a common goal/language.” The language is post-bebop bordering on free jazz. Recorded at the concerts, the 4TET—with exhilaration and a sense of risk—apply their unique idiom to five Gibbs compositions. “Ballet” begins as a series of collective abstractions and soon assumes a waltz feeling. Vu’s dazzling state-of-the-trumpet-art solo leads to him and Frisell ending with Gibbs’s eccentric melody appearing in the piece for the first time.
“Feelings And Things,” an abstract ballad, is primarily an occasion for Vu to bring his lyricism to the fore and let one of Gibbs’s most attractive melodies speak for itself. Ted Poor introduces “Blue Comedy” in a short, incisive solo charged with hi-hat licks and Roy Haynes pops. As Vu and Frisell introduce the tricky melody, the trumpet’s first few notes echo. Whether that is intentional is impossible to know, but it’s an intriguing effect. Frisell invests his solo with quirky asides and what sound like country licks. Rhythmic intensity builds under the impetus of Vu’s gnarly solo. Far from getting in the way, Poor ‘s drum chatter under Bergman’s bass solo enhances it.
“And On The Third Day” is an exercise in drama and emotional density. Vu rasps, growls and echoes before settling into what could be taken, briefly, for a resonant Esbjörn Svensson excursion in Nordic placidity. Soon enough, however, he is fluttering, swooping, playing extended growls and, in general, giving a lesson in 21st Century jazz trumpet fluency. In his solo, Frisell uses amplifier distortion and alternates power chords with decisive downward strokes. As the track eases toward its close after 12 minutes of heat, the lower register of Frisell’s guitar guides us to a peaceful conclusion. This track has remarkable power. To absorb it, the listener may want to take the trip at least twice.
“Sweet Rain,” probably Gibbs’s best-known piece, opens with Vu’s trumpet as mellifluous as a cello—in distinct contrast with the raucousness of his work in “And On The Third Day.” The lyricism of Frisell’s solo has soft, but hardly timid, support from Poor’s brushes. This is Vu’s and Frisell’s first album together since 2005’s It’s Mostly Residual. Twelve years is too long between collaborations by musicians who are so stimulating together.