I t's a Thanksgiving feast in April as Earshot serves up a spring set—a mini version of its renowned November jazz festival. Similar to what he does each winter, Earshot director John Gilbreath has booked some of the most forward-minded players (the series got started last Sunday night with Charles Lloyd), and on successive nights this week at the Tractor, he'll be presenting two outer poles of brilliance in the music's contemporary current—a veteran master and a younger Turk, one acoustically raw, one highly electrified, both finding new ways to expand free music's vocabulary.
The younger of the two is something of a homegrown product. Born in Vietnam during the tail end of the war, 33-year-old Cuong Vu came to this country with his family in 1975 and ended up in Bellevue. He started playing trumpet in grade school, and after graduating from Bellevue High, went off to the New England Conservatory on a full scholarship. Vu says he "studied jazz hard-core for two years" but found that he couldn't really relate to it. "Jazz in terms of swing music is not relevant to me," he says. Instead he found himself infatuated with the music of Schoenberg and, later, the art-pop of Björk and Radiohead. Eventually he worked up the nerve to move to New York—"I was too scared [at first because of] all the stories of cutting sessions"—and ended up landing deep in the downtown scene that was then centered around the Knitting Factory. He found a swarm of creative players—many of them also with Seattle roots (Jim Black, Chris Speed, et al.)—who were exploring improvised music that had nothing much to do with swing.
Vu instantly earned notice for his strangely arid, dark sound, and after gigging with different bands and leading some of his own, he eventually found his musical soul mate in Stomu Takeishi, an innovative electric bassist who's been part of Henry Threadgill's group among plenty of others. Vu and Takeishi have been a unit ever since, backing up pianist Myra Melford and working with a succession of drummers in the Cuong Vu Trio. (Vu also plays with the Pat Metheney Group when not leading his trio.)
Though Vu and Takeishi's playing can be minimalist at times, they engender a storm of noise through echoes, effects, and distortions, as the percussion busily carves up the surface. It's a kind of exploded drum and bass, washed with an aching symphonic moan and growl. Vu himself struggles to articulate the concept. "I don't know—it's a mishmash of everything I like and an avoidance of everything I don't like. We're trying to find different ways to propel motion besides [imitating a drum machine] boom-cha boom-cha and harmony."
Sadly (for me), the amazing drummer Joe Tomino is no longer in the trio, but Vu promises that the new kid, 22-year-old Ted Poor, is not to miss. "His intuition on the improv thing is really mature," says Vu. "He knows how to not overplay." (Vu's trio will also be joined here by a certain internationally known, Seattle-based guitarist.) In Vu's view, "a lot of times improvisers don't respect what the music indicates. They just want to blow, show off their thing. It's self-serving." In his trio, Vu insists, "the music dictates where it should go."
That idea is one veteran bassist William Parker has been advocating and living out for decades. Parker was part of New York's free jazz loft scene of the 1970s (then, utterly unfashionable and ignored; today, lionized and embraced), as well as Cecil Taylor's bassist through the '80s. He's risen from obscurity in the last decade or so, partly on the strength of that odd intersection of indie-rock intellectuals and jam-band groovers who've taken up the cause of improvised music. Listeners without a Bill Evans record in their collection are all over Matthew Shipp (with whom Parker regularly collaborates), which has boosted the visibility of numerous downtown players, none more deserving than Parker. Among the hard-core jazz set, his star has risen as well—his most recent quartet disc, O'Neal's Porch, released in a small pressing in 2001, won raves in all the major jazz rags, and has since been rereleased by the higher-profile AUM Fidelity.
Parker brings such an egoless spiritual vibe to his playing that he's his own best example of a music-first philosophy. As he told the magazine Signal to Noise, "[I]t has to get to the point where [the music's] flowing and has a life of its own, where you're subservient to it. You're not the one making it go; it's going somewhere and you're saying, 'Take me along with you!' . . . Music is older than us and wiser than us, it's deeper than us, so why should we try and lead IT?"
In contrast to open, but linear, players like Charlie Haden, the Bronx-born, 52-year-old Parker plays his bass as a font of pure sound, not really constructing melody as dabbing colors and vibrations. But he's also not afraid of song forms and grooves; his quartet, with saxophonist Rob Brown, the dry trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and the ecstatic drummer Hamid Drake, plays a music of heads and solos that is recognizably tied to the conventions of jazz history, yet feels unbounded all the same. This may be one of the bassist's more "accessible" projects, but the beauty of Parker is his embodiment of a search for truth that's always elusive. Anyone interested in that would do well to attend.
William Parker Quartet play the Tractor Tavern at 8 p.m. Sun., April 11. $16. Cuong Vu Trio play the Tractor Tavern at 8 p.m. Mon., April 12. $12.