Jen Shyu—the ever-ambitious, ever-evolving vocalist—has produced and performed several multi-disciplinary solo shows. Her latest one—Zero Grasses—was commissioned by John Zorn and premiered at National Sawdust. It is perhaps her most personal project to date.
Over the course of the show, Shyu will sing in multiple languages, play a variety of instruments, and dance, as well as having composed the music, worked on sound design, and written the libretto. For every ticket sold–aligned with the themes of birth, death, and rebirth–a tree will be planted in the forest of Shyu’s father, in collaboration with WEARTH. We recently spoke at length with Shyu about how the work transformed around the recent passing of her father.
TJG: It’s amazing to think that our last interview was almost exactly two years ago today. At that time, we were discussing Zero Grasses, which seems like it has really transformed. It was a Jade Tongue ensemble project, correct?
Jen Shyu: Yes, exactly. When it was In Healing | Zero Grasses, it was the day before I was going to record with Jade Tongue, the band with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Some of those songs remained in this solo version, but indeed, the show took a big turn, in terms of its themes, in terms of everything.
TJG: When we last talked, the emphasis was on relationships and grief, personal and environmental, and not necessarily focusing on particulars. I was just reading about the recent passing of your father—was that a catalyzing moment for you and for this work?
JS: Yes. I was in Japan in January for what was to be a five-month fellowship, doing research, focusing on the premiere of Zero Grasses, the solo show at National Sawdust commissioned by John Zorn. The fellowship was the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship by way of The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Those five months were going to feed directly into the piece. After that, I was immediately going to stop by New York before going to Sienna in Italy where I teach at the jazz workshop. After that, I was going to do a composition residency through the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which would be where I was going to finally organize this whole solo piece.
I got an email during a Japanese lesson about a month and a half into my time in Japan. It was from the sheriff where my parents lived in Texas: “We are sorry to inform you that your father, Tsu Shyu, has passed away.” I was like… What the hell?! I thought it was a joke, a scam. I couldn’t believe it. I called my mom, in a panic, and it was true. The ambulance had already come, dad had already been pronounced dead. He had passed away during his nap, before dinner. He wasn’t sick: He’d just come back from a trip in Egypt with my mom and was about to go to Greece. It was such a shock. That changed everything.
That night in Japan, before flying back home, I had a biwa lesson. I needed some comfort. My teacher was like a mother figure to me, and when I told her what had happened, that my father he had passed away during his nap, she said “Oh, yes, that’s how I want to go too” [laughs]. It instantly made me feel better.