The Safety Net: Cuong Vu – “It’s Mostly Residual”

February 2, 2013

The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series which highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.



Seattle trumpet man Cuong Vu is probably best known for two fine qualities… his languorous trumpet blasts that rise like a phoenix out of the fire of dissonance, and his creation of dissonance utilizing a signature mix of distortion and electronics.  The way these qualities manifest through sound imbue tunes with an ethereal serenity and a chaotic buzz, both separate and as one.  Vu sounds like no one else on the scene.  It’s Mostly Residual is one of his earlier releases.

Your album personnel: Cuong Vu (trumpet), Ted Poor (drums), Stomu Takeishi (bass), and Bill Frisell (guitar).

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William Gibson’s masterpiece cyberpunk novel Neuromancer opens with the classic line, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”  The fictional town this port lies in, Chiba City, is a futuristic mix of old architecture and new technology, of a place where ancient motivations and visionary possibilities meet to create a new reality.  The opening track to Vu’s It’s Mostly Residual lingers at that fictional port.  The air is heavy with the scent of the sea.  Seagulls born of microcircuitry soar overhead as Japanese wasen trawl the waters for discarded computer parts.  Vu’s soaring trumpet is the defacto seagulls, Frisell’s fuzzy guitar effects the scent of the sea, Takeishi’s bass the boats and computers bobbing against the choppy waves of Poor’s drums.  It’s an hypnotic song, even when it raises the heat to a level capable of breaking the hold of any spell cast over the listener.

The song’s shifting moods and cadence sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“Expressions of a Neurotic Impulse” starts at a ferocious tempo and refuses to relinquish it.  Poor sets the pace on drums; Nobody has trouble keeping up.  This is followed by “Patchwork,” which begins with a gentle sway, and has Vu and Frisell trading casual notes while Poor chatters anxiously just beside them.  Takeishi’s bass finds a middle ground between those two extremes.  But the pull of Poor’s frenetic orbit becomes too much for the quartet to resist, and the tune journeys off in a direction much different than from whence it began, returning to that gentle opening sound only at the very end.

It doesn’t remain there long.  “Brittle, Like Twigs” returns to a state of hyperactivity.  Vu fires off a series of trumpet lines that sometimes dematerialize into electronic frisson.  Frisell matches Vu’s heady pace, but moves in directions of a vertical nature, often crossing Vu’s horizontal path.  Poor takes the low road, Takeishi one in the upper registers.

“Chitter Chatter” returns to a pattern of distracted serenity blossoming into ambulatory combustion.  Poor’s drums mumble distractedly while Frisell lets loose a series of acerbic statements.  Vu puts a positive spin on the state of things with long slow uplifting notes.  Takeishi is in a poetic mood, but sticks to the background mostly.  The tune gradually builds into a chaotic monolith, both tempo and volume rising up to greater and greater heights… and, then, from that chaos, the quartet suddenly coalesces into a singular moving force, adopting a demeanor of something resembling a modern straight-ahead post-bop tune.  It’s an amazing transformation, especially in light of the fact that the quartet had already pulled off one costume change previously on this tune.

The album ends with “Blur.”  It is something of a return to the seaside languor of the opening track, though, in this instance, the scene never begins to storm.  It’s a simmering lullaby of a song, and a beautiful end to the album.

Released originally in May 2005, and currently offered on the Table & Chairs Music label.

Jazz from the Seattle scene.

Available as digital download (any format) on Vu’s Bandcamp page.

Available at eMusic (non-U.S. regions only).  Available at Amazon: CD


And just in case you haven’t read it yet, go buy William Gibson‘s fantastic novel Neuromancer

Available at Amazon: Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

Tiny Reviews – Recapping the Best of 2011 (Part 4)

January 11, 2012

Recapping the Best of 2011, featuring:  David Braid, Iro Haarla Quintet, Naked Truth, Paul Fox Collective, and Julian Lage.


David Braid – Verge

While many are talking about pianist Craig Taborn’s solo album, it’s worth noting that another excellent solo piano album was released in 2011.  Under-the-radar pianist David Braid doesn’t (yet) have the name recognition going in his favor, or the backing of the ECM label (which carries a substantial reach and prestige), but his album Verge is no less deserving of recognition as one of the top albums of 2011, and his name should be getting mentioned in conversations about Jazz’s top pianists.  Let’s try to balance the scales here a bit.

Braid seems to have a knack for recording flawless jazz albums full of exuberance and musicality.  Two live releases, Zhen and Vivid, display Braid in sextet blowing sessions that embody everything that’s great about a straight-ahead jazz recording:  thrilling improvisation, expert musicianship, and fun fun fun compositions.  He also recorded Spirit Dance, where he’s joined by Canadian Brass for a set of Braid’s jazz-inspired compositions for piano and brass quintet.

And now he’s offered us Verge, a solo piano recording full of quiet moments that never threaten to elicit drowsiness, dramatic moments that never devolve into cheesiness, and some prepared-piano effects that never come off as gimmicky.  It’s a wonderful effort deserving of more attention.

The album is self-produced, fifty minutes of solo piano. Jazz from the Toronto, Canada scene.

A free album track is available at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.

Available at Amazon: MP3


Iro Haarla – Vespers

Iro Haarla‘s music is just too damn beautiful.  The Finnish pianist-harpist follows up on her excellent 2006 release Northbound with Vespers, a series of atmospheric, blissed out tunes that have the sonic effect of making all your worries go away.  A tone is set with the opening notes that this is a recording that will reach thrilling heights, but it’ll be a slow unhurried build to get there.  It’s a rough challenge she’s put to herself and her ensemble, but Iro proves up to it on an album that’s dripping with talent.

Your album personnel:  Iro Haarla (piano, harp), Mathias Eick (trumpet), Trygve Seim (saxophones), Ulf Krokfors (double-bass), and Jon Christensen (drums).

All these guys make strong statements in the Euro-jazz scene, mostly on the ECM label.  Mathias Eick has been written up on Bird is the Worm for his 2011 release Skala.  If you’re looking for trails of breadcrumbs to discover new jazz, the personnel on this album are a great place to start.

But back to Vespers.  These tunes shimmer with an epic beauty, like music filling the air around stained glass churches, out over snow peaked mountaintops.  Eick and Seim trade long plaintive notes, reaching upward.  Haarla’s piano buoys them up higher and her harp gives them wings.  Christensen, who mans the drums on many classic ECM albums, shines here just as bright with his patented restrained touch to percussion comparable to how a soft lullaby can knock a child out cold, and bassist Krokfors keeps things close to the ground with his earthy tone.  A beautiful album.

Released on the ECM label.

Available on Amazon: CD | MP3


Naked Truth – Shizaru

Cuong Vu is on a roll these days.  In addition to his excellent Leap of Faith, he joins the Naked Truth quartet for a sizzling set of avant-garde tunes.  Vu’s trumpet is a singular voice, unlike anyone else on the scene, and I love hearing it juxtaposed against a variety of players, and in this instance, a variety of distinct and unconventional sounds.  Walls of electronic effects, free jazz growling over rock flourishes, fiery singular notes peaking through waves of dissonance, resulting in an album that engages engages and engages.

Your album personnel:  Cuong Vu (trumpet, electronics), Lorenzo Feliciati (guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, electric bass), Roy Powell (piano, Rhodes, various keyboards), and Pat Mastelotto (drums and percussion).

Quirky keyboard riffs over squiggly electronics, guitar pluck and static, poly-rhythmic battering rams, and Vu’s shuffle and wail trumpet.  It’s a collective effort; not a lot of soloing, and everyone pulls their weight to build the tension from beginning to end.  This stuff is way out on the fringes of jazz, but that’s insignificant in the face of this fascinating music.  When I find music this engaging, that gets in my face and challenges me to try to weed my way through it, mundane topics like genre classification get shuffled to the bottom of the stack.

Released on the Rare Noise Records label, who have a very eclectic stable of musicians, and who offer all types of freebies and streaming opportunities.  Well worth exploring their site.

A free album track is available at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artists and label.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Paul Fox Collective – Submerging & Emerging

An enchanting set of modern jazz tunes.  Very much with one foot in the indie rock tent, with its swirling melodies and rhythmic approach, but I’ve always been a big tent guy when it comes to jazz, so as long as one foot is on jazz territory, I’m all for inclusion.  Besides, the sound on this album is becoming more and more commonplace in jazz circles (most notably on Brian Blade’s Season of Changes, which this album compares to favorably), and so it’s becoming an increasingly fuzzy measurement on where Jazz’s “center” is.

Your album personnel:  Paul Fox (drums, compositions), Robert Kesternich (piano, Rhodes), Markus Ehrlich (tenor/soprano sax), Maurice Kuehn (bass), Zacharias Zschenderlein (guitar), and Stephanie Neigel (vocals)

Moody sound, but with a fighting spirit.  Ehrlich’s sax, with its somber expressive tone, carries the day, but Kesternich on piano strikes some emotionally potent moments throughout.  I’m not typically a fan of jazz vocals, but Neigel’s contributions on a few of the songs are quite enchanting and the album would’ve suffered without her.  This album came out of nowhere for me, and months after I first heard it, I still relish the times when I see it’s up next in my stereo queue.  This is one of those albums that can slip by unnoticed if you’re not careful.

Released on the Jazz ‘n Arts label.  Jazz from the Luxembourg scene.

Stream most of the album on Fox’s myspace page.

Download a free album track from AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.

Available at Amazon: MP3


Julian Lage – Gladwell

Guitarist Julian Lage wanted to create a concept album around the fictional town of Gladwell.  After hearing the album, I know where I want to take my next vacation.  Mixing back porch languor with front porch intrigue, Lage has constructed an abstract vision of this musical town from the soil up to the sky.

Your album personnel:  Julian Lage (guitars), Aristides Rivas (cello), Tupac Mantilla (percussion), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Dan Blake (sax).

Lage is his own man on this album, his sound unique on a unique album. If I had to compare to anything, it would be the folk-jazz of Jeremy Udden or perhaps the quasi-bluegrass of Leo Kottke.

Dreamy guitar lines with an undercurrent of cello and hazy sax, choppy percussion the barking of neighborhood dogs on a lazy Sunday afternoon while the bass is the lawn mower off in the distance.  Just a fantastic album that delivers the expansiveness of a city skyline and the solitude of a rooftop view of it.

Released on the Emarcy Records label.  Jazz from the Boston scene.

Available on Amazon: CD | MP3

Cuong Vu – “Leaps of Faith”

December 29, 2011


Trumpeter Cuong Vu has established a sound quite unlike anyone else on the scene. With lighthouse moans soaring above a wash of dissonance and electronics, he’s created a post-bop ambient style of avant-garde. Or said differently, it’s the metaphorical equivalent of a straight-ahead jazz melody dropped onto a tiny desert island in a sea of chaotic noise. The end result is that it’s pretty damn hard to find a Cuong Vu album that isn’t compelling as hell.

That brings us to Leaps of Faith. Here’s your album personnel: Cuong Vu (trumpet), Ted Poor (drums), Stomu Takeishi (bass & electronics), and Luke Bergman (bass & electronics).

Vu opens with three covers of jazz standards. I had to poke around his discography a bit to see if this was something he typically did but never noticed because of his unique sound. Nope, his albums almost always feature his own original compositions. I’m thrilled he took a different course here. There may be no better way to illustrate Vu’s originality in approach than on a standard tune that everyone knows. For instance, how about the Jerome Kern tune “All the Things You Are”…

The familiar melody is there. It’s gotta be. A successful cover of a jazz standard requires that the melody get referenced throughout the track. It’s okay to break it down, shift it around, deconstruct it, and prod its heart to see what makes it tick… but please put it back into a shape that resembles the original, and reference the damn thing from time to time. Vu gets it, and it’s why it’s so easy to enjoy his versions of standards both as familiar songs but also on Vu’s terms as well. Just brilliant.  He also covers “Body & Soul” and “My Funny Valentine”.

When the standards end and the original compositions begin, the album begins showing Vu’s stripes with “Child-like”. Sweeping post-rock rhythms and grungy harmonics roil underneath Vu’s wailing, sometimes plaintive, sometimes ferocious, a song that begins with calm waters then builds into a monsoon, ending abruptly in the eye of the storm before the song comes to a sudden stop.

Vu lets that eye carry over into the next track “Something.”  Vu takes George Harrison’s song and turns it into a peaceful floating tune with Vu’s gentle lullaby on trumpet, the pitter patter of drums and squiggly electronic flourishes left in its wake.  It’s the kind of song that is so blissfully serene that I have to replay it immediately, even if it messes with the continuity of the album.

That ends, however, when the jet engines of “I Shall Never Come Back” start warming up.  But first, a little applause from the audience.

Yes, I said ‘audience’. This is the first time it’s revealed that this recording is from a live show. It’s a remarkable feat because, one, the sound is excellent, and two, the album is almost over before the audience sound hits the speakers.

But back to those jet engines. The build of noise is pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as the way that Vu tames the dissonance with strong trumpet calls that remind the chaos that it exists only on his own terms.

The album ends with the gentle “My Opening Farewell”, a tune with a dark atmosphere to drift away on.

It’s a stunning album, adding one more impressive notch to Vu’s already impressive discography.

Released on the Origin/OA2 label in 2011.  Jazz from the Seattle scene.

Stream the entire album on Vu’s Bandcamp page.  You can purchase it there, too, in most file formats.

A free album track is available on AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist and label.

Available on Amazon: CD | MP3

Tiny Reviews – Recapping the Best of 2011 (Part 2)

December 21, 2011

Tiny Reviews recapping the Best of 2011, featuring:  Ocean Sounds Quartet, Jeremy Udden, Mik Keusen’s Blau, Andy Sugg, and Tyler Gilmore’s 9th & Lincoln Big Band.


Let’s continue with some of the albums that I think are highlights of 2011.  There’s gonna be five in this post and those going forward.  I know previously I said I’d do seven at a time, but five is feeling like a more manageable number per post, plus it may help with the load times on my screen to spread out the posts (and their accompanying embedded audio players) a bit more sparingly.

Let’s begin.


Ocean Sounds Quartet – Live at the Ship’s Company Theatre

I’m always curious about the relationship a band name and sound has with its surroundings, whether one influenced the other.  For instance, it’s easy to imagine sitting on the waterfront on a cool evening as the fiery yet introspective music of the Ocean Sounds Quartet drifts through the moonlight.

Trumpeter Paul Tynan brings together a quartet featuring Fred Kennedy (drums), Al Sutherland (guitar), and Dan Sutherland (bass) for a series of serene tunes just perfect for a night of sitting back and spending the night listening to great music.  The quartet refers to its music as a fusion of Maritime Celtic-Folk and Modern Jazz, and even if you’re not sure exactly what that implies, what to take away from that description is that here is an album that kind of sounds straight-forward, but outside elements are added to the compositions to render it a little bit different, a little strange, and very intriguing.  It’s not an uncommon story for excellent modern jazz albums to fly under the radar, but it never fails to surprise me every time it happens; Live at the Ship’s Company Theatre is yet another one of those excellent albums that deserves way more time in the spotlight than it received.

Apparently it’s become a tradition for this quartet to play a show at Ship’s Company Theatre on the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia.  Let’s hope their recording schedule also makes plenty of frequent returns.  Released on the solid Armored Records label, an hour of modern jazz.  Jazz from the Nova Scotia (Canada) scene.

There is one song on Paul’s site here to stream from the album.

Download a free album track from AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artists.

Available on Amazon: MP3


Jeremy Udden – If the Past Seems So Bright

On his last album Plainville, Jeremy Udden presented a unique sound of folk jazz that I haven’t heard anything like before.  Mixing his Paul Desmond-like alto sax with banjo and an otherwise jazz ensemble, he created a series of languid back porch tunes of sublime peacefulness.  On his newest release, Udden is still making back porch tunes, but maybe now the neighbors are considering calling the cops to get him to turn the noise down a bit.  Adding some edge to the tunes, Udden shows he’s not satisfied with just making more of the good stuff, willing to risk a bit in order to build on past successes in search of something more.  Success is what he got.

Your album personnel:  Jeremy Udden (alto & soprano saxophone, clarinet), Pete Rende (Fender Rhodes, pump organ, Prophet, Wurlitzer), Brandon Seabrook (banjo, guitar, 12-string guitar), Eivind Opsvik (acoustic bass), RJ Miller (drums), and guests:  Nathan Blehar (nylon-string guitar, voice and guitar), Will Graefe (steel-string acoustic guitar), and Justin Keller (voice).

If it was a stretch to call Plainville a “jazz” album, then elasticity will be a greater concern, because If the Past… really seems like it removed its second foot from beneath the jazz tent.  Not sure that it really matters, other than I’m including it in a recap of the best jazz albums of the year.  But I’m willing to stretch the definition of the word ‘jazz’ if the result is to include a wonderful album like this.  Released on the Sunnyside Records label, who had one of the strongest set of releases in 2011.

Download a free album track from AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist and label.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Mik Keusen’s Blau – Nalu

Reviewers using the word ‘cinematic’ to describe music has crossed over into the cliche, but there is still a time and a place for that word and, besides, sometimes cliches charm me into using them.  For me, when I call something cinematic, it’s because the music has connected with me cerebrally in a way that I uncontrollably daydream a series of images straight through the music, images which linger even after the album has ended.  Mik Keusen’s Blau‘s excellent album Nalu does exactly that to me.

Employing a barrage of piano lines that effectively imitates falling rain, both in torrents over city streets or lightly on rooftops and tree cover, Keusen has recorded a beautiful album of elemental ambiance.  Joining him in his quartet are Sha on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, Anna Trauffer on double bass and Fredrik Gille on percussion.

Fans of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin will be right at home with this album, where Bartch’s piano is like falling snow to Keusen’s rain.  I’m sure ECM label junkies will get hooked on Nalu, too.  Quite frankly, not sure why Manfred Eicher hasn’t scooped this quartet up yet.  Released on the Tonus Music Records label, approximately 50 minutes of piano quartet jazz with strong Norweigan jazz influences

Download a free album track at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.

Stream the entire album on Keusen’s bandcamp page.

Available at Amazon: MP3


Andy Sugg – The John Coltrane Project: Andy Sugg Plays Trane

Andy Sugg achieves a multifaceted sound here, sorta like Andy Sugg covering Alice Coltrane covering John Coltrane. This is more than Andy taking ownership of the song; it’s a bit as if he’s also tipping his cap to the lineage of musicians who have given their take of John Coltrane.  I don’t usually care for tribute/cover albums, but Sugg’s Coltrane Project is a refreshing interpretation, and the inclusion of guitar is a very nice touch.  Really surprised that this album didn’t catch on more with listeners, but if Andy continues putting out albums like this, the spotlight will get trained on him soon enough.  He kills on Greensleeves, which I absolutely love hearing new takes on.  Jazz from the Melbourne, Australia scene.  Released on the Downstream Music label.

Your album personnel:  Andy Sugg (saxophones), Daniel Gassin (keyboard), Tom Barton (voice), Ben Robertson (bass), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet), Natalia Mann (harp), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), and James McLean (drums).

A free album track is available at the AllAboutJazz site, courtesy of the artist.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


Tyler Gilmore’s 9th & Lincoln – Static Line

Big Band conductor Tyler Gilmore brings together some of Denver’s top jazzers, including trumpeters Cuong Vu and Brad Goode and Greg Harris‘s vibes, to create a recording of expansive sound and epic big sky sonics.
Replete with swirling melodies and electronic effects, Gilmore finds a way bring lush ambient harmonies into the mix without sacrificing the lighthearted joy so typical of a big band album.

Vu’s presence on the album is felt considerably, as Static Line has plenty of the fuzzy dissonance typical of many of Vu’s projects, but whether this is Gilmore’s thing, too, or he’s got the bandleader savvy to learn how to roll with the punches and incorporate outside influences into his own vision, the end result is a terribly intriguing album that fits well with both the quieter moments and those times when an infusion of jazz energy is called for.

A very exciting development on the modern big band front, as well as getting to see some of Denver’s talent. Released on the new Dazzle Recordings label (it’s a jazz club, too). Just under an hour of modern big band jazz.

You can stream the entire album on Gilmore’s bandcamp page.

A free album track is available at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.

Available on Amazon: MP3