Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue

Sounds and Cries of the World
Pi Recordings Pi 61

By Ken Waxman

One of the musicians of Asian heritage who are interpolating currents from eastern cultures into American-based improvised music, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu approaches the task earnestly, rejecting surface exoticism. Like a jeweler who sources the most appealing stones for an exquisite necklace no matter their origin, Shyu places ethnic-tinged sounds within unique settings. She may sing in Javanese, Korean, Tetrum (from East Timor) and Indonesian plus English, but no attempt is made to reproduce traditional frameworks. Besides piano, she accompanies herself on gat kimr two-string Taiwanese lute; gayageum, 12-string Korean zither, ggwaenggwar, Korean gong; and kenmark, a Javanese idiophone. But these instruments are integrated with so-called western tones from Mat Maneri’s viola, Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet, Thomas Morgan’s bass and Dan Weiss’ drums.

Although working in the area of art song rather than jazz, there are times, especially on “Bloom’s Mouth Rushed In” and “Aku Yang Lahir Dari Air Mata | Båwå Sidå Asih” where Shyu’s soaring yelps are doubled by Akinmusire’s glossy effervescence, the way Harry “Sweets” Edison’s accompanied Billie Holiday. That’s not the only Occidental echo either. Backed by Maneri’s skipping strings and brass spirals she appropriates Joni Mitchell-like bell shaped tones when vocalizing the English lyrics to “Mother of Time”. Vocalizing in Korean on the same tune, she swallows her tones yet is in perfect sync with desolate idiophone cracks. Emotionally vivid, her double-tracked delivery on the mystical “She Held Fire” is amplified by strident trumpet notes and reinforced by drum beats, so that the message becomes as affecting as grieving widows’ wails.

However the capstone of her art comes with “Rai Nakukun Ba Dadauk Ona” and “Song for Naldo”. Sung in Tetum as she wallops the piano keys, the first performance is as theatrically wrenching as a gospel preacher testifying, so that realizing it reflects East Timor wars is almost superfluous. Shyu is equally impassioned in the Tetum lyrics for “Song for Naldo”, but when switching to English pure anger shows through her recitation of the atrocities inflicted on the East Timorese people. Western instruments insert melancholy stresses on the concluding “Thoughts of Light and Freedom” providing closure to the previous vocal passion and confirming Shyu’s multicultural talents.

Track Listing: Song of Kwan Wen; Bloom’s Mouth Rushed In; Mother of Time; Moxa; Aku Yang Lahir Dari Air Mata | Båwå Sidå Asih; Para Pembakar Ombak; She Held Fire; Rai Nakukun Ba Dadauk Ona; Song for Naldo; Thoughts of Light and Freedom

Personnel: Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Jen Shyu: piano, gat kim, gayageum, ggwarngwari, kemanak, voice; Mat Maneri: viola; Thomas Morgan: bass; Dan Weiss: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2016