“If I'm crying, it just means I understand the cycle of life.” — Jen Shyu and the Music of Loss
Jazz fans can get inured to talent. The musicians are all so good—play jazz and you realize how hard it is to just reach a middling level—that it's understandable to take for granted the study and practice that gets a player up to the point of one more marvelous improvisation.
There are those times, though, when one encounters talent that goes beyond normal experience, talent that is a pleasure to witness but difficult to grasp—like grabbing smoke, the standard tools are inadequate. That's what it's like at one of Jen Shyu's performances. To say she's a polymath or a multi-instrumentalist doesn't constructively indicate what she does. She sings, she plays string instruments, she moves with musical purpose. And she tells stories, ones about herself, people she knows, other cultures.
She is a griot. Her practice touches on jazz, and she has substantial jazz experience that ranges from singing standards to being in Steve Coleman's groups. But like Don Cherry before her, she incorporates other cultures, then transforms and transmits them to new audiences.
Her large-scale solo work Nine Doors is the most advanced example of how she turns her cross-cultural connections and learning into music drama. It is told from the standpoint of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Javanese shadow puppet master Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik.” It relates the story of Cilik’s death in a car accident, and also follows a narrative of encounters with legendary women from Timor to Korea. Shyu sings this in Indonesian, Javanese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Tetum, Korean, Japanese, and English, while playing instruments like the Taiwanese moon lute, the Japanese biwa, the gayageum (a Korean zither), and even the piano.
The solo work is something she made “to challenge myself … I find it very powerful for the audience. I love touring solo, I love having women in the audience, it means a lot to have them talk to me afterward, to have that feedback. I’ve always been inspired by women doing this ‘beyond’ stuff.” She related that in a phone conversation from before 2020 began. This past year has meant a hiatus on touring and live performances, but not an end to music-making for Shyu. Catching up over the phone, again, on International Women’s Day, she talked about Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses, her next album for Pi Recordings, scheduled for an April 23 release.
The album features trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Dan Weiss (this group is called Jade Tongue, and can be heard on her 2015 Pi release, Sounds and Cries of the World), and was originally scheduled for a 2020 release.
“We ended up re-recording almost everything,” at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, in August of 2020, she explains. “By that point I had played most of the music live and wanted to rerecord it; based on what it was like playing it through the [previous] year.” That meant redoing all but three of the original tracks, in-person in the studio (except for Akinmusire, who recorded his parts remotely and returned them to Shyu), with plenty of COVID-19 safety measures.
The new version of the album is “definitely a COVID baby,” Shyu says. It was originally slated for release in the Fall of 2020, but “because of the pandemic and because I was still mixing the record … we decided to wait until April 23, in honor of the month my dad passed, two years ago.”
“I kept writing new stuff as the pandemic began, it's what kind of kept me going the first month, because we were kind of still hoping that we could be together again in a few weeks.” Zero Grasses includes two pieces of music from Nine Doors, and like that earlier work is a theatrical performance piece transferred to audio recording. It is also centered around deep, personal loss, the passing of Shyu’s father, who never woke up from a nap one day while Shyu was in Japan, studying music and language.
Re-recording the music meant Shyu could encompass the general and specific tragedies of 2020. Two tracks, “Living’s a Gift” and “Lament for Breonna Taylor,” are new. The former is her first piece for chorus—she hoped to use middle-school students, but pandemic restrictions meant multitracking her own voice. The lyrics collect these same students’ reactions to the pandemic experience. Almost all of “those words are directly from those kids,” she points out, “the really good stuff came from after school closed and they were stuck at home. It was so moving to see what they wrote and to see what they were going through at such a crucial age."
For the latter piece, she initially meant to leave Taylor’s name out of the title, wanting to emphasize that Taylor, killed by police in a no-knock raid in Louisville, was just someone like “you and me, who wanted a” decent, ordinary life. In all Shyu’s work, she wants “to give voice to people who are not here anymore, or who aren't usually heard, women and underrepresented people. Having made Zero Grasses as a live show, really fresh after the experience of loss, I want to create a space that allows others to mourn.” If Shyu’s means seem out of the ordinary or avant-garde in any way, that has more to do with our own sense of modernity than the substance of her work. Narrative, story-telling songs are ancient, and the performing traditions that she has found herself amidst are ancient as well, the epic legends of cultures shared and passed down the millennia via a singer, who often accompanied themself with a string instrument, and danced.
But there certainly is a modern element as well. When Shyu talks about inspirations, she means just that, women who set an example that she followed. Foremost among them is Meredith Monk. “She was sitting next to me,” at Stanford, where Shyu was an undergraduate, “and she told me, ‘you have a very good ear.’
“I saw her directing,” her staged work, in “every little detail. I was deep into opera at the time, I was into musical theater and singing in jazz combos.” Shyu was trying to integrate these elements and felt stuck. “Seeing [Monk], and how her company worked was really inspiring, and something I had not thought of before. That was a pivotal thing for me.”
Along with Monk’s approach that begins with the integration of the voice, body, and movement, she found another guiding example in singer Cassandra Wilson. “Seeing her totally in control, and totally relaxed, in her approach to the audience,” which Shyu now emulates in her intimate and confident stage manner.
As for the journeys into music and performing styles from Asian cultures, she credits that to her work with two leading San Francisco Bay Area Asian-American jazz musicians, pianist Jon Jang and wind player Francis Wong. In the roles of both musicians and activists, the two “encouraged me to learn more about Taiwanese music,” her father’s ancestry (her mother hailed from Timor). “I found a CD of indigenous Taiwanese music,” at a Bay Area record store, “and it sounded closer to African and Afro-Cuban music.” Her curiosity about that music, and what she describes as “a knack for languages”—she speaks 10—combined with “a sense of urgency, that I had to do it now, that it was my calling.”
From 2011–2013, as a Fulbright scholar, she traveled through Asia, apprehending and practicing what seems a daunting range of music and performing ideas, as well as languages. She spent time in East Timor, learned some components of traditional dance, as well as vocal music, in Java, and through persistence and determination made her way to Korea, to immerse herself in yet another national concept. The urgency has paid off not only with the new album and Nine Doors, but in Song of Silver Geese (2017, Pi Recordings), an important transitional document that has her mixing her newly mastered ideas with jazz, and even modern classical music via the MIVOS Quartet.
And it’s not that she left jazz behind—there’s plenty of modern swing and jazz phrasing on Zero Grasses—but more that her universe expanded. On her horizon, a composition for 20 musicians. “I just wrote a grant for it,” she says, “it’s a multilingual ritual drama for 20 women musicians, who will also sing, act and dance.” She thinks of it as a theatrical orchestral work, and after an album “born out of such a time of loss,” the new theme is both opposite and, maybe, apposite for 2021: fertility.
Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue will debut Zero Grasses via livestream from Roulette, April 6, 8 p.m., link: https://roulette.org/event/jen-shyu-jade-tongue/.