Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cuong Vu and Burn List at the Mission Theater

Cuong Vu
I've been curious about trumpeter Cuong Vu for a little while. I was not terribly familiar with his music until a few years ago, when we competed for a teaching job at the University of Washington. (He won the job, and he is still currently on the faculty.)I wanted to know more about my "competitor", so I downloaded a few of his trio records. Vu's music is what some might call "avant-garde". I might call it "ultra-modern". I was certain that I liked the "idea" of his music. I like forward thinkers, generally speaking. I wasn't completely in love with the music; honestly, I was a little conflicted. But I let the jury stay out. And even after seeing Vu and his band live, the jury might still be out. I do respect Vu's conviction as a musician, without a doubt.

Mission Theater
I headed down to the Mission Theater in the Pearl District of Portland. It's very easy to get to by foot, just a short walk from the streetcar. The Mission Theater is a lovely venue, very low key and warm, like you were in somebody's gigantic living room. The event was sponsored by PDX Jazz, which is sponsoring Miguel Zenon in November and your truly in December(December 13th to be exact. I will be reminding people ad naseam). After a short introduction, Cuong Vu and his band Burn List took the stage, consisting of Greg Sinibaldi on tenor saxophone, Aaron Otheim on Korg M3 keyboard, and drummer Chris Icasiano. Vu mentioned later in the concert that he and Sinibaldi were old friends, while Otheim and Icasiano were the youngsters of the group.

Greg Sinibaldi
The concert began with a song called "Wine Cloud", written by keyboardist Otheim, opening with a lot of long notes over a vamp, which reminded me of composer Phillp Glass' minimalist music. There were a lot of atmospheric effects, using delay, and cool synth-rhodes hybrid sounds. (I hate to use "cinematic textures" because everybody and their mother has probably used that to describe this band, but it's getting late, so there it is.) The music shifted into a 5 note keyboard riff against a triplet groove played by drummer Icasiano. The tension built into a virtuosic tenor solo by Sinibaldi, who reminded me of modern tenor players like Steve Grossman, and maybe  a sprinkling of Gary Thomas or Mark Shim, but not as aggressive. There was some free form drumming over a fat, evil orchestral bass synth sound, and then the band got soft again.

Burn Unit creates compelling musical atmospheres, however, some of the sound effects are borderline gimmicky. Vu blows air through the trumpet, which in connected to an effects pedal, and admittedly, it's a cool sound, at least the first time you hear it..... I was enjoying the music, and I like the contemporary edge and the freedom, and the band was surely very tight, and sound like they had played together a lot. (The drummer had all the music memorized.) I like the ambient stuff, but I was missing the "meat and potatoes", like a strong melody, or a really compelling solo, or some kind of infectious groove.

Vu and Sinibaldi played a nice contrapuntal duo, which was hard to tell if it was composed of improvised, but it was effective. There was also a nice drum and piano duet, in which keyboardist Otheim used a very free approach, contrasting some of the complex arpeggio patterns he played on the non-improvised portions.)A piece called "Chau" began with what could have been a riff in an 80's pop tune, but then rhythmically flipped in and out and upside down, expertly held in check by drummer Icasiano, who played some stuff that might be described as Dave Garabaldi(drummer of Tower of Power)on Acid.

Cuong Vu is clearly a thoughtful, skilled musician, and has the pedigree and credentials to prove it. His trumpet playing is unique; not terribly impressive on a technical level, but if you dig what Vu is going for musically, it doesn't matter. As a frustrated trumpet player myself, I can appreciate a musical trumpet player much more than guys who play a million meaningless notes, or try to win the Maynard Ferguson contest at every opportunity. Vu has a focused tone and good intonation and articulation. He tends to stick to low and middle register playing, but occasionally ventures upward, which actually makes it more effective. I thought it was interesting that the bandleader, Vu, didn't actually take a solo until 25 minutes into the set. Again, I'm guessing that this is an artistic calculation, in the tradition of Miles Davis, who left the stage and featured his sideman quite a lot.

Chris Icasiano
Drummer Icasiano impressed me throughout the concert. He had surely done his homework, he played with a lot of energy and taste, and had a focused sound. I couldn't help but wonder what he would sound like playing something more conventional(although that goes against my philosophy of listening to music based on what it IS rather than what it is NOT. HA!)

I left the Mission Theater reasonably satisfied, but still not as convinced as I'd hoped to be. Like I said, I choose to let the jury stay out. Vu puts on a good show, and I think he has something to say. Check him out for yourself at his website. And don't forget to come out on November 16th for Miguel Zenon and December 13th for my group, featuring Todd Strait, Eric Gruber, Kerry Politzer, and Dan Balmer.



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