Cuong Vu 4Tet – Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs) – RareNoise 

Cuong Vu 4Tet – Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs) [TrackList follows] – RareNoise RNR079, 41:57 [4/28/17] ****:

A masterful tribute to a top-notch composer and arranger.

(Cuong Vu – trumpet; Bill Frisell – guitar; Luke Bergman – bass; Ted Poor – drums)

Guitarist Bill Frisell is a busy guy with a lot of recent settings which feature his music. This year, Frisell has toured as a guest with The Bad Plus. He has a sublime duo release, Small Town, with bassist Thomas Morgan (on the ECM label); he’s on Allen Toussaint’s posthumous 2016 album, American Tunes (Nonesuch) as well as Bonnie Raitt’s 2016 record, Dig in Deep; also in 2016 Frisell issued When You Wish Upon a Star. And there’s the documentary, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, which premiered in the spring of 2017. Tellingly, that film includes performance footage with composer/arranger Michael Gibbs: in the mid-‘70s, Frisell studied with Gibbs at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. That Gibbs connection is the reason for Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs), a 41-minute concert recording where Frisell is part of trumpeter Cuong Vu’s 4Tet, along with regular 4Tet members Ted Poor (drums) and Luke Bergman (bass). This marks the second collaboration between Vu and Frisell. Their first project was Vu’s 2005 effort, Mostly Residual. The five-track Ballet CD came about when Seattleite Frisell had an idea to bring Gibbs to the University of Washington last year for concerts of his orchestral and jazz big band music, as well as sets by Vu’s quartet. Vu is currently a professor and the chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Washington, although he’s probably best known in jazz circles as a participant in the Pat Metheny Group. Ballet is available as an LP, a CD or as a digital download. This review refers to the CD version.

Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs) is a forward-turning jazz album, yet it’s not as audibly intense as other Vu releases, where Vu favored a digitally enhanced trumpet along with dense chordal changes. On Ballet Frisell alternates from resonant, sensitive notes to moments of abandon and the kind of brash approach which once made him a go-to artist in the NYC downtown jazz scene. There’s a wide-open collective bonding on the opening, eight-minute title track, which begins in a mostly straightforward way, with Frisell focusing on a ringing, reverbed tonality that is washed with just a slight edge of discordance. Meanwhile, Vu twists out, in, up and down through the melodic foundation. After a few minutes, the track shifts course and the arrangement does a turnabout, and coarsens up, becoming frictional and more ferocious. The shortest piece is the six-minute ballad “Feelings and Things,” where Vu and Frisell share an ethereal musical coloring which has a modal sensibility. There is a beautiful sparseness to “Feelings and Things” with introspective rhythmic work by Bergman and Poor, while Vu and Frisell impart a tangible contemplation. A similar fragile brilliance pervades the closer, the 7:33 “Sweet Rain,” which is another showcase of Vu and Frisell’s fine musical relationship, where they trade notes and lines, complement each other, and push each other into luminous artistry.

Aptly, the strongest blues-suffused number is the bouncy “Blue Comedy” (done by the Gary Burton Quartet in 1968), which is spirited and satisfyingly free. The 4Tet plays in a slightly askew but balanced manner. During the cut’s eight minutes, each quartet member solos. The intro centers on Poor’s rhythmic directness; in the tune’s second half, Bergman adds some nice bass flourishes. “Blue Comedy” concludes with some intriguing aggregated melodies between Vu and Frisell just before the final outro. The live set’s highpoint is the 12-minute “And on the Third Day,” which comes from Gibb’s 1970 self-titled debut LP. The piece commences with a passive and pacified drone-like passage with Vu’s soft and soaring trumpet and Frisell’s reverb-tinged guitar. That gradually evolves into an area of sonic commotion where everyone gets increasingly louder until the track almost enters rock territory. It’s here where Vu contributes edginess via electronically-enriched trumpet and Frisell turns his guitar into a forceful and hard-hitting instrument. Ballet (The Music of Michael Gibbs) might not have been noticed by all jazz listeners when it came out in the spring, but it is well worth discovering since it offers an opportunity to hear the music and creativity of three top-tier jazz musicians at the same time: Michael Gibbs, Bill Frisell and Cuong Vu.

TrackList:
Ballet
Feelings and Things
Blue Comedy
And on the Third Day
Sweet Rain

—Doug Simpson

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