Part performance artist and part conjurer, jazz vocalist Jen Shyu contains multitudes. Steeped in folkloric music traditions from Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, East Timor and beyond, Shyu has forged a multi-disciplinary performance practice encompassing dance, vocals, various instruments, and at least seven different languages.
She brings together all her far-flung studies in her new work Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, a collaboration with renowned Indonesian filmmaker-director Garin Nugroho. In a rare Bay Area appearance, Shyu presents the West Coast premiere of Solo Rites on Friday, Jan. 23, at San Francisco’s Center for New Music, and Sunday, Jan. 24, at Oakland’s Studio Grand on a double bill with pianist Motoko Honda.
A fixture on the edgy New York scene for more than a decade, Shyu first gained international attention as a member of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, where her soaring vocal lines meshed with his dense avant-funk. After an eight-year run with Coleman, who was recently awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Shyu lit out on her own to continue immersing herself in obscure and threatened traditional musical forms in 2011. A Fulbright scholarship brought her to Indonesia, where she studied Javanese Sindhenan and dance, followed by a six-month scholarship from Korea’s National Gugak Center to study Pansori, a percussion-driven form of musical storytelling.
“I was purposely reaching for the underappreciated or forgotten traditions,” Shyu says, noting that when she set out on her journey to Java she dreamed of meeting Garin Nugroho, whose 2006 film Opera Java combined the country's native gamelan music with an experimental sensibility.
“It was traditional-sounding but full of completely avant-garde elements, this poetic and beautiful marriage of music, dance, and visual arts,” Shyu says. “This is exactly aligned with the way I want to make work. It was kind of a fantasy that maybe I’d run into Nugroho, and through connections via Rachel Cooper at the Asia Society, I did. It was thrilling that he was interested in working together.”
Shyu has been honing the piece since it premiered at Roulette last May, and her New York City performance last week at Winter Jazzfest elicited a rapturous review in the New York Times, as Ben Ratliff described Shyu “singing parts of her piece Solo Rites: Seven Breaths in Korean and English, playing various lutes and zithers and percussion instruments, combined movement, acting, singing, and playing into long-form songs that could remind you of ancient court music or Joni Mitchell. Everything she did—every turn, every breath—came with mindful emphasis.”
Given her far-flung travels and long residencies in Asia, Shyu has been a scarce presence in the Bay Area in recent years. She last performed here at the Red Poppy Art House in 2010 when she celebrated the release of her gorgeous duo album with bass virtuoso Mark Dresser, Synastry (Pi Recordings). A music professor at UC San Diego and a leading figure in jazz and new music since the 1970s, Dresser first encountered Shyu performing with Coleman about 10 years ago. He was so impressed with her musicianship that he suggested they get together in New York to play. They ended up working together extensively and generating an album of thrilling duo encounters.
“Jen is such an incredible student of music,” Dresser says. “She’s got this unquenchable thirst. She just goes there, deeply studies the music, and absorbs it in the most organic way. She was amazing before she left, with profound time and pitch. Now her sound, her sonic palette, has gotten deeper and the emotional spectrum of what she does is palpably greater. It’s exciting to hear someone grow so much.”
In many ways Shyu’s music has been a vehicle for exploring her roots. Her father was born in Taiwan, and her mother hails from the Hakka Chinese of East Timor. She credits her formative years in the Bay Area with forging a multi-disciplinary performance practice that integrates her skills as an improviser with her ever-expanding musical vocabularies.
“What I’m doing now is a continuation of what I started with in the Bay Area,” Shyu says.
After studying dance and classical voice at Stanford in the late 1990s, she joined the San Francisco collective Red Jade and encountered a well-established community of Asian-American artists who encouraged her to explore beyond the straight-ahead jazz tradition. Dancer Lenora Lee encouraged her to integrate movement and vocals, while pianist Jon Jang and tenor saxophonist Francis Wong pointed her to Hong Kong, a move seconded by Steve Coleman, who told her “if you don’t go there, you’re just spinning your wheels. We’re on the frontier, and you’ve got to push it.”
She made the move to New York City to study with Coleman, an artist who has exerted a profound influence on jazz since he was at the center of Brooklyn’s M-Base Collective, a loose confederation of artists dedicated to integrating an array of African-diaspora cultural forms. Many of jazz’s most celebrated improvisers, from pianist Vijay Iyer and vocalist Cassandra Wilson to Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto and Puerto Rican altoist Miguel Zenón, cite Coleman as a formative influence. Eventually, Shyu became the first vocalist to join Five Elements since Cassandra Wilson.
“Everything I’m doing vocally, improvisationally, I have to thank Steve for forcing me to learn those Bird solos, with getting past copying and creating my own language,” Shyu says, referring to bebop alto sax progenitor Charlie “Bird” Parker. “He was really proud of the fact that he had a singer who could float through the changes like a saxophonist, and pound out the rhythms like a drummer.”