Instantly recognizable for her soaring voice and multi-instrumental virtuosity, Jen Shyu is a category-defying performer. Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times that Shyu’s concerts are “the most arresting performances I’ve seen over the past five years.” Her accolades include a Doris Duke Artist award, Downbeat Critics Poll Rising Star award, a Fulbright, and support from organizations from New Music USA to Chamber Music America, as well as The Jazz Gallery. Shyu has produced and recorded seven acclaimed albums as a leader, and her solo performances, such as Nine Doors and Solo Rites: Seven Breaths have been toured and performed extensively, pushing the limitations of what a solo performance can be.
For her new project, In Healing | Zero Grasses, Shyu has assembled her Jade Tongue ensemble, featuring Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. This brand new Jade Tongue project “offers new poetic narratives addressing and aiming to heal the loss of communication between humanity and nature and to restore the bonds between one human being and another.” Shyu herself will be singing and playing piano, as well as Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum, and Japanese biwa. We spoke with Shyu about her vision for the project in this early creative stage.
The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to start by asking about the new Jade Tongue project. Let’s start with the name, In Healing | Zero Grasses.
Jen Shyu: Like many jazz projects, it’s still in progress, and likely will be right up to the performance. The name was given to me by an Indonesian director named Garin Nugroho. We’ve worked together a lot, most recently on Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, my solo piece before Nine Doors. In talking about doing a new work, he ‘assigned’ me the number zero, in something of a sequence from Seven Breaths and Nine Doors. He said, “Let’s work with zero,” and had this idea for a premise for the piece. He said, “Let’s do a piece that deals with the loss of human ability to communicate with nature.” I thought that was beautiful, and manifests in so many ways. We can’t, for example, really predict or prevent tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires. We can track them, but ultimately can’t prevent tens of thousands of people from dying. Despite our advances in technology, we are still at the mercy of an environment that we are not helping to take care of.
I have also gone through some personal changes as well, including the recent ending of an important relationship, which has been significant while working on this piece about the disconnect between humanity and nature. Now, I see parallels between these two things. How can we, as a species, not predict environmental destruction with all of our advanced technology, and similarly, how can we, as individuals, not predict the ending of important relationships? We have so many new ways of communicating, so much new technology, yet things aren’t necessarily becoming more clear. There are potent parallels.
TJG: So what’s an example of how In Healing | Zero Grasses looks at these parallels?
JS: It’s about relationships, in many ways. We need relationships: It’s part of being human. When people are interviewed near the end of their lives, there are so many accounts of people saying, “What really mattered to me were my relationships, after all… I wish I had spent more time with this person, I wish I didn’t take this person for granted,” that kind of thing, wishing they had reached out, worked through grudges, talked to people with whom they’d had a falling out. It’s all centered around relationships. So the piece is both an exploration of how we need each other, and how we navigate relationships, both personal and environmental.
One aspect I’ll be working, singing, music-ing about is what I saw while I was recently in Florida for a month. They have this thing in the gulf, and in many parts of the word, called “red tide,” where algal blooms release toxins and deplete the oxygen in the water, due to factors including global warming and pollution. So many fish, manatees, turtles, are dying and washing up on the shore. When I was in Florida, at all of these supposedly beautiful beaches, there were so many dead fish along on the shore. And there were still people out there, in the ocean, sunbathing, walking among the dead fish! There are lots of stories of locals going swimming and feeling things bump up against them, or finding piles of things under water, and it’s so disturbing to find that it’s actually dead fish. How many dead animals does it take to make a human uncomfortable enough to really consider what’s happening? While they’re just strolling or wading, how many dead fish does it take? That’s just one example of something that may come out in the show.