Jen Shyu Sings Her Story in Five Languages


When I last wrote about Jen Shyu—a singer and musician who is as remarkable for her diligence as for her talent—in The Wall Street Journal four years ago, here’s how I started the profile:

Lettered tiles crisscrossed the coffee table in singer Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment, remnants of an unfinished game of Bananagrams—a sped-up, free-form variant of Scrabble. How fitting. A playful yet rigorous approach to language animates her stirring music. Sounding fierce at times, ruminative at others, displaying tonal precision and an intuitive rhythmic sense, Ms. Shyu is among New York’s most invigorating vocal presences. And perhaps the most enigmatic.
Part of the intrigue, especially through her highest-profile role, in alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band, is the question of language. “People always ask what I’m singing,” she said. “The answer is a variety of languages, including ones from China, Taiwan and East Timor, which are points in my ancestry. When I’m improvising, I’m singing in all of them. Or none of them. I’m taking bits and pieces, making it sound like it could be a language.”
Ms. Shyu’s fluency in seven languages and several traditional musical styles is based on far-flung and deeply immersed study. (She leaves later this month for a year in Indonesia, her great-great-grandmother’s birthplace, on a Fulbright Scholarship to study sindhenan, the traditional singing of Javanese gamelan music.)

Having completed that and other research, Shyu has sythesized this knowledge into something utterly and beautifully new—“Sounds and Cries of the World,” her terrific new album.  (You can find my Wall Street Journal review here.)
On this latest recording, Shyu sings original lyrics in five languages: English, Korean, Javanese, Indonesian and Tetum, the language of East Timor. She plays instruments that originated in four different countries. Despite these facts, and even the album’s title—“Sounds and Cries of the World” (Pi Recordings)—this is neither world music nor fusion of any sort.
Shyu makes a statement of cultural preservation with her Jade Tongue ensemble, yet it arrives embedded gracefully within a quite natural, if startlingly distinctive, form of musical expression. These are ritual songs from afar, paddling gently through the ebb and flow of improvised jazz. Or jazz-ensemble pieces sailing past folkloric signposts. They suggest timeless qualities of specific Asian traditions but even more so the promise of present-day New York. Along with the five languages Shyu speaks here is an unspoken one—the improvised lingua franca of jazz’s most accomplished musicians that connects her influences and animates her ambitions.
Shyu’s new music draws upon long residencies in Asia during the past decade, much of which traced her lineage. “While this album spans my research,” Shyu wrote in a liner note, “most of these compositions were born from vivid dreams while conducting fieldwork in East Timor in 2010, my first time visiting my mother’s homeland.”
The urgent yet enigmatic emotions radiating from these 10 songs, the shifting and often surrealistic textures created by both instruments and lyrics, do suggest dream-like interior landscapes. Yet Shyu refers to physical landscapes—mountain grass, lily pads, rivers and seas—and employs sounds and words she encountered during her travels. In Taiwan, her father’s birthplace, she learned to play the indigenous two-stringed “moon” lute on which she composed most of these songs. That’s the primary one of five instruments she plays here (another is the gayageum, a 12-stringed Korean zither).
Such an enterprise might have turned clinical—valuable, even charming, but engaging largely to ethnomusicologists or fans of esoterica. In fact, Shyu provides detailed notes about traditional melodies and literary sources (from Korean poetry to a harrowing passage from an East Timorese truth and reconciliation report). She sometimes combines elements. On one track, her singing intermingles with a field recording she made of sindhenan, the improvisational singing of Javanese gamelan music. On another, her original lyrics, in English, based on a Taiwanese poem, are set to a melody drawn from a Javanese song; the track ends with a Korean prayer.
If Shyu’s music flows like jazz it doesn’t move to familiar rhythms, which is a welcome challenge to bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Dan Weiss, her partners for nearly a decade. The most appealing qualities of her singing—finely nuanced and ever shifting tones, a balance of fierceness and tenderness—are present too in the playing of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and violist Mat Maneri. Akinmusire’s trumpet lines, which often sound voice-like on his own recordings, here sometimes spin out from Shyu’s vocals like thread from a spool. Here and there, Maneri’s viola extends the shapes of Shyu’s atypical song structures or explodes them into lovely abstraction. In spots, the three together—voice, trumpet and viola—form elegant braids of overlapping phrases. This ensemble is staked to modern jazz’s operating principles yet utterly free of its conventions, and thoroughly committed to one woman’s story.
Shyu, who is 37 years old, was born and raised in Peoria, Ill., and has lived in New York since 2004. She’s worked extensively with the influential alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, immersing herself in his complex mixture of bebop influence, “drum chants” and harmonic patterns often based on esoteric influences. Coleman calls his work “community music.” So is Shyu’s. The community these new songs represent includes the people she met along her way, such as Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho, who helped her turn some of this music into a one-woman multimedia show last year, and Mestre Marçal, an East Timorese musician who taught Shyu the lakadou melody that frames her “Song for Naldo.”
Remarkable as her achievements with her ensemble are, Shyu is especially riveting on that track, simply strumming her lute and singing. Her voice, a wonder of technical control and unrestrained emotion, tells a story dotted with well-researched facts and wild poetic allusions. She claims both as her truths.

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