Junior Brown & Cuong Vu

Last Wednesday the 24th, I went to see Junior Brown at the Tractor Tavern. The man is a monster of rockabilly, and plays a double-necked invention that came to him in a dream–a half guitar, half steel-guitar, that he calls the guit-steel. The man plays fast. Tears it up, even. But there’s only so much country-and-western type finger picking (an old guitarmate of mine called it “chicken-pickin”) that I can listen to. And the timekeeping seemed elastic at best, like the rhythm section was starting too fast and Junior kept fighting them to slow down. He did throw in a credible Albert King cover, and some heartfelt Jimi/Stevie-Ray blues rock, but when the show was over, I was ready for it to be over. I hate genre-defined music fans, but the simple fact is no matter how much Seattle loves country and all its offshoots, I just don’t.

I tend to like jazz, though, so it’s a good time of year to be in Seattle: Earshot time. Cuong Vu is a trumpeter and composer who I knew only through a single song, “Vina’s Lullaby,” on a Knitting Factory compilation from a few years back. It’s a beautiful number, starting with long haunting notes (a little bit of echo) like a summons from across the water, gradually descending into a punk-jazz freakout propelled by monster bassist Stomu Takeishi, eventually coming back out to a sad melody and clocking in around 11 minutes.

Last night, he played for about 100 lucky listeners at the new Seattle Art Museum auditorium. Apparently he was just hired on as an assistant professor of jazz at the University of Washington, so he noted how nervous he was that his boss and his students were. He needn’t have worried–the compositions and playing were both incredible. Takeishi was outstanding, garnering a larger range of sounds from his pedals than most entire rock bands get–clicks, squeaks, rattles, echoes, delays, fuzz, chords, distortion. He doesn’t wear shoes–I think it’s so he can turn the knobs with his toes! The drummer, Ted Poor was spot-on and obviously a big contributor–he wrote the last song of the night, which started with just a few subtle clicks and whirs and gradually built into a percussion-driven bang-up then went back down, stopping in the middle of a beat. Cuong Vu himself coaxed as much beauty out of a trumpet as anybody I’ve ever seen, although he occasionally blatted and squeaked like any good downtowner should.

The compositions were rhythmically complex but not impossible to follow, with a clear shape, lots of triads, and not too much dissonance. Perhaps it’s too approachable or too rock for purists, as he complained some influential critics had labelled him as “not jazz.” (To which he responded, “Now I’m a professor of jazz, so I guess I get to say whether it’s jazz or not.”) I kept thinking of being out on Puget Sound on a semi-cloudy winter evening with the snow-covered Olympics disappearing into the background, and also of standing in front of a large white concrete wall.

Sometimes they were a little too good–I almost could hear them counting the subdivisions in their head. Every skilled musician counts like this, but it’s almost like you have to break away from the good habits to get back to a more organic sound, where the musicians know the beat just by breathing.

He also made a comment about how dark the times have become for music. (Overall, he talked too much.) I’m not sure if he was talking about file-sharing and technology and declining CD sales, or simply about a perceived disinterest in “high” culture. But I’m not seeing it. In Monterey last month, I couldn’t buy a ticket for the Jazz Festival (I scored a free one from the concierge at the hotel at the last second). There were 20,000 people there, all ages and colors, to hear people like Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. (And, OK, Diana Krall, but there’s no accounting for some people’s taste.) I listen to more new music now than I have in years, and sure, a lot of it comes from friends ripping a CD or throwing a few files my way, but in the end that means I go to more shows and–if I really like it–buy more records. So maybe he’s alluding to some particular trend in the jazz world, but I’d say overall there’s more interest in music than ever.

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