Music Reviews

posted: June 9, 2017

Cuong Vu 4tet Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs)

RareNoise, LP or CD
Cuong Vu 4tet

Ballet, by trumpeter Cuong Vu’s 4tet with guitarist Bill Frisell, functions as sort of a double sequel. In 2015, Cuneiform released Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband Play a Bill Frisell Set List: Gibbs arrangements of tunes Frisell composed or played. This short set of Gibbs compositions returns the favor. It was captured  in January 2016 at the University of Washington, where Frisell teaches and Vu heads the Jazz and Improvised Music program. Not long after Ballet was recorded, Nonesuch issued Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny with a parallel instrumentation. Ted Poor drums on both albums; on Ballet, the electric bassist is Luke Bergman. The new fans the Metheny album brought the trumpeter should stick around for this one.

Mike Gibbs is a true jazz cosmopolitan. Born in 1937 in what is now Zimbabwe, he was schooled in Boston, where he began composing in earnest, supplying a few tunes to vibraphonist chum Gary Burton. Gibbs’ own recordings include sprawling roundups of London jazz and rock musicians from the early 70s, completed before he returned to Boston to teach at Berklee. Nowadays he’s best known as an arranger for big bands, folding Mingus and Gil Evans influences into a personal style. The five Gibbs pieces on Ballet stem from his breakthrough 60s years—Burton recorded four of them back then (and the other was dedicated to him). I suspect Frisell first encountered them as a student of Gibbs’ during the 70s.

You can hear why folks took to his music. The ballad “Feelings and Things” mixes a plaintive melody with subtle, complex harmony that calls on improvisers to do some fancy weaving and yet gives them time to absorb its logic. (It also reminds us how much inspiration 60s composers drew from Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green.”) The music’s catnip for players like these, who look out for the odd notes anyway. Throw in a bright medium tempo and they’ll happily romp awhile. “And on the Third Day” doesn’t wear thin at 12 minutes, given how well the players pace it all. On the heads, Vu and Frisell may phrase as one, keeping their tones distinct or melding them into a single voice. (Vu can swell his sound to mimic Frisell’s volume pedal.) Composer Gibbs was in the house, and the 4tet does right by his evergreens.

Frisell remains rightly esteemed for his ability to change up his tone and style and still sound instantly identifiable. (His hot streak continues with his other new album on ECM, Small Town, duets with telepathic bassist Thomas Morgan, on which they play music by Lee Konltz, Paul Motian, Fats Domino, and the Carter Family—plus “Goldfinger.”) Cuong Vu’s malleable trumpet sound proves a good match. Beginning his solo on “Sweet Rain,” his pensive horn sounds oddly like a viola.

Most of the time, Vu lets you hear the brass. As on the Metheny disc, the trumpeter shows his range—from growls, streaky long tones, and whooshing air at one end to majestic pealing in the lyrical mode at the other. He stretches out to excellent effect on “Blue Comedy,” where his solo slowly builds to the same kind of complexity as the tricky, boppish melody, his triplety phrases tumbling over the beat. The band is right there with him. These Seattleites stick together.

–Kevin Whitehead