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Originally published Saturday, February 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jazz Etc.

Experiments with sound, education — and success

A couple of years ago, the sensational Bellevue-bred trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu played an unlikely double bill with the Edmonds-Woodway High School Jazz Band.

Seattle Times jazz critic

Listen up

You can hear samples of Cuong Vu and the Vu-Tet at http://cuongvu.com.

A couple of years ago, the sensational Bellevue-bred trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu played an unlikely double bill with the Edmonds-Woodway High School Jazz Band.

As emcee, and figuring the crowd was probably more comfortable with Count Basie than Vu's grunge/jazz, I advised them to just "follow the sound, and the shapes it makes in space and time," and everything would make sense.

You know what? The audience loved that show.

Of course it was Vu's trio — abstract, dark, electronic, urgent — that drew the listeners in. But it never hurts to remind folks that hearing something new requires a different sort of attention.

Seattle music lovers now have plenty of chances to "follow the sound" of Vu.

Last fall, he joined pianist Marc Seales as the only other full-time jazz faculty at the University of Washington.

Vu's trio — with special guest Bill Frisell (guitar) — performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Meany Theater at the UW ($10-$15; 206-543-4880 or www.meany.org). The trio also plays at 7 and 9 p.m. the following night at Egan's in Ballard ($12; 206-789-1621 or www.ballardjamhouse.com).

"He's the future," said Seales of the 38-year-old trumpet player. "Plus, the students love him, man. He has a certain vibe that is very attractive to them."

Born in Saigon, Vu moved to Bellevue when his parents emigrated from Vietnam in 1975. Starting on trumpet at 11, he went to Bellevue High School, got a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music and moved to New York in 1994.

Since then, he's toured with Pat Metheny for several years and won two Grammys for albums with the guitarist. Vu's own trio — Stomu Takeishi (electric bass) and Ted Poor (drums) — has regularly gathered critical props, including frequent Top 10 lists.

So why come back to Seattle?

"I really got tired of living in New York," said the intent, straightforward experimentalist. "It's so congested, I couldn't stand it. And I like being connected to family and friends."

Vu's girlfriend, Cristina Valdes, a classical pianist he met at NEC, jumped into the local scene last fall, producing the Seattle Latin American Music Festival at the Good Shepherd Center.

But it wasn't just family and big-city fatigue that brought Vu back. It was a newfound love of teaching.

"I'd be on the road," he said, "and these kids would come up and ask, 'What is this music?' I hooked up a lot of gigs at colleges and high schools, and the kids would go nuts. I realized it's all about education. This is how I'm going to do my part."

Like another jazzer originally from the Eastside, saxophonist Chris Speed, Vu made his name on New York's progressive "downtown" scene. But Vu's stint with Metheny gave him new respect for fundamentals.

"Basically I was never able to practice enough until I got the gig with Pat," Vu admitted. "I always had a day job."

On his excellent new album with Speed and the trio, "Vu-Tet" (ArtistShare), Vu's trumpet chops are noticeably nimble, especially on the bumblebee flights of "Accelerated Thoughts," the muscular runs of "Never, Ever, Ever" and the romantic lyricism of "I Promise."

Vu's rich, passionate sound, often circling in a sea of electronics over the throbbing current of Takeishi's bass, is often quite dark emotionally.

"The world is freaking me out," he said. "When people get an opportunity to do good, they do bad. Even little things add up, like you want to merge onto the freeway and people speed up. That makes me dark. Why can't you be cool? It's so much easier."

If you want to get a jump on the sound of Vu, the trumpeter joins Seales at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Tula's, in Seattle ($15; 206-443-4221 or www.tulas.com).

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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