Cuong Vu 4Tet with Bill Frisell – Ballet (2017)

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A live set honoring the music of the great jazz trombonist, arranger and composer Michael Gibbs, Ballet shows off the great interpretive and leadership acumen of Seattle trumpet maestro Cuong Vu. Now out on Rare Noise Records, Ballet builds on Vu’s renown in crafting lithe and spacious sounds that are also just as explorative and filled with wonder as free jazz.

Vu’s combos have typically mixed-and-matched among a fairly small group of highly regarded musicians to result in a different architecture of his music each time. Like the last 4Tet album Leaps of Faith, Ted Poor stays ensconced behind the drum kit and Luke Bergman mans the bass. Returning after his last Vu appearance on 2005’s It’s Mostly Residual is guitar legend Bill Frisell.

Frisell seems more at ease and comfortable than his usual comfortable self, reveling in the slender but nimble footprint of the rhythm section and Vu’s careful balance between atmosphere and impulsiveness. That’s right in the guitar icon’s wheelhouse. But inspiration also came the man being feted: Gibbs is a longtime hero of Frisell and the guitarist sought to bring Gibbs out to the University of Washington to arrange Bill’s own music for orchestra and big band. Vu’s quartet accompanied both large ensembles on each night they performed, followed by the 4Tet playing Gibb’s tunes alone. Ballet captures the quartet performance of the second evening.

Vu, Frisell, Bergman and Poor use Gibb’s compositions as parameters around their performances, freely exchanging ideas and counteracting each other within the guidelines set by Gibbs’ pen, while at the same time honoring the harmonies of the man from Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in often indirect ways. Tellingly, three of the five selections comes from Gibbs’ seminal self-titled debut album from 1970.

“Ballet” is — for a while, anyway — a well-hidden blues until it reveals itself as such about two-and-half minutes in. Frisell takes on this music form with more economy than anyone else, while Vu is not so angular but modulates his own solo like a champ. Poor continues to drum freely after the abstract intro, refusing to sound rote.

“Feelings and Things” uses some of the same tonal colors as Miles Davis and Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green” and Frisell’s adventure with spare backing from Poor and Bergman is richly resonant. Vu is introspective like Miles but articulating that introspection using his own dialect. The perky “Blue Comedy” is blues in spirit and wonderfully loose. The band members play very complementary as each takes a solo, culminating in Vu and Frisell counterpointing each other before uniting for the closing phrases.

Vu’s elongated notes seems to drift blissfully on “And On The Third Day” and Frisell imperceptibly alters his comping role to a co-lead with the horn player. Moreover, everyone gets progressively louder until it turns nearly into a rock song, and Vu contributes just as much to the metal fuzz as anyone. Frisell at times is as darkly aggressive as he’s sounded in years.

Frisell’s softly oscillating tone sets “Sweet Rain” down a placid path, one that Vu rides along with a stylish soft swing in his expressions that, along with the easygoing groove from the rhythm section, makes this the ‘jazziest’ performance of the set.

In many ways reminiscent of the Paul Motian classic album Psalm which introduced Frisell to much of the world more than three and a half decades ago, Ballet is welcome music to fans of the Motian protégé’s early career even as it’s a celebration of the career of someone else who deserves some celebration. Through the democratic exchange of ideas and attention to textural detail, Cuong Vu 4Tet’s emotional and sensitive shaping of Michael Gibb’s songs earn serious attention on their own.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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