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.
TJG: I’m interested in how you draw a comparison between an intense personal relationship between two people and a person’s relationship with their environment. With a personal relationship, it’s one-on-one, just you and them, with your history and experiences. With the environment, it’s all your senses, your upbringing, society, politics, economics. Both relationships are equally bewildering.
JS: That’s a nice way to sum it up, yeah. They’re both equally unpredictable, in a way, illogical, delicate. You can’t make any assumptions, because things are constantly changing, mutating. It’s so fluid, so transient. It gradually becomes the question of death, of how and when. We know death will happen, but not when or how. It still shocks us into complete grief and trauma. It’s rarely going to be, “Oh, this person was ready to die.” Nine Doors was centered around a friend of mine who was thirty years old, a promising, amazing gamelan musician and Javanese shadow puppet artist. He was killed in a car crash with his wife and baby son. God, why, how? It’s as unpredictable as anything. I’m trying to remind audiences to never take anything for granted. Is it possible to live urgently?
TJG: This gets into the “Zero Grasses” aspect of this as well?
JS: Yes. In thinking about the technology that keeps us from communicating face-to-face, like email and texting, I’m also thinking about the rate of development, that side of technology. I’m imagining a world of barrenness, with no grass, no trees, no flowers, no green, no earth. Wow. Could this become a world of all buildings and paved roads? Maybe it’s an apocalyptic vision, but it’s something the director and I have talked about, and it’ll probably come out in the show. Garin Nugroho has discussed so beautifully the concept of “thing dead” (“benda mati”) and “thing alive” (“benda hidup”). A “thing alive” would be a tree. It’s growing. But we cut it down, and we make things with it: Those are “things dead.” Even if it’s a beautiful bench, it’s dead. Humans make dead things out of other dead things, things that were once living. With this in mind, it’s interesting to predict how our world will end. Will it be an exploding planet? Will everything melt, leaving objects behind? That’s what “Zero Grasses” is referring to, that state of imagining and predicting.
With Hurricane Harvey, I remember being struck by reading a report about one of the reasons why the floods were so extreme and extensive. The building and development in Houston happened so fast that in certain areas, huge amounts of surface area were entirely concrete. In the flood, there was no way for water to drain into the earth. It’s so poetic, in a way: The water couldn’t escape, we blocked the earth from absorbing it. That’s an amazing image. I hope that this piece, In Healing | Zero Grasses, will remind us to try to salvage what we can. That includes our relationships, our ways of communicating with each other. In a nutshell [laughs].
TJG: With the band, Jade Tongue, can you give me a little backstory about how you came together? Each of these musicians brings a strong, personal voice to the stage, it’s quite a collection.
JS: Thomas, Dan and I have worked together for the longest. I came up with the concept of the group a long time ago, back in 2005. It grew out of my love and obsession for language, and aspects of the cultures I wanted to bring to light through music and language. Most of the time, these are stories that have not been heard, either in this country or in the context of a creative performance. That was the concept for the group. Thomas and Dan have been my core rhythm section members since we released the record, and I love them as a pair.
I started working with Mat on a different project around 2008. He’s one of my idols. I started taking lessons from him, but then I got the nerve to ask him to be on a project of mine, a piece called Cry of the Nomad. Since then, I’ve been working with Mat on essentially of all of my projects and recordings, except for my duo with Mark Dresser.
Then, I brought Ambrose in on a Jade Tongue gig at the 55 Bar. I love Ambrose’s whole artistic oeuvre, and I invited him along with Dan, Thomas, and myself to create Sounds and Cries of the World. For this new project that I’m bringing to the Gallery, I thought it was time for that group to come together again. The last project I did with Pi was Song of Silver Geese, a big project involving many musicians, and I wanted to go small again. In fact, that was the first time Mat and Ambrose worked together, and I’m very happy to be a part of that historical moment. It’s the first time I’ve had a repeat of personnel for a project, I usually change it up or add someone new, but this is a group I want to go deeper with.
TJG: I know you perform in venues of all sizes for audiences of all types, especially with your last solo project, which you toured across all fifty states. Is there a place or an audience that makes your performance feel the most impactful?
JS: When I have worked with kids, those have been the most beautiful, impactful experiences, which is what drove me to do the tour, in a way. I was born in Peoria, Illinois and raised in Dunlap to the north. We had so little exposure to artists, not many women artists, and especially not women of color artists. We had a music teacher at the school, but in terms of a professional musician coming to perform, we never had someone like that come into our education at our school. Growing up was tough, because of racism, in a nutshell. To have been able to see an artist come in who looks like me, at my age, would have changed so many things, it would have made such an impact on me.
Today, I customize my workshops depending on the students’ and schools’ needs. I often begin by bringing in my instruments and talking about each of them. You know, this one is from Korea, this one is from Japan, this one is from Taiwan. Then I give a little demo of traditional music on these instruments, I’ll sing in those languages, talk about being multilingual and the importance of learning languages. I put the travel bug in their ear. I say “The more languages you speak, the more friends you’ll have!” You know, bribing them into learning languages [laughs]. Then, I play my own music on these instruments, and give a full performance where I’m acting, doing my crazy dramatic stuff. I lead an intermediate improv workshop. And if there’s enough time, and we get far enough along, I give everyone an opportunity to improvise in front of the group, just to get everyone involved in writing, moving, singing, dancing all together. I was definitely not encouraged to write my own melodies in school or in my private music lessons. These young kids in jazz programs today who are composing and improvising, that wasn’t available to me. I never got to do that, for some reason. For some kids, that’s a rare opportunity
Recently, I was in Washington, at a high school near Seattle called Edmonds-Woodway that luckily has a pretty substantial music program. The beautiful thing was that, inevitably, these kids came up to me afterwards. One said he had relatives in Kenya, and was trying to learn the language so he could talk to his grandmother. He was one of the kids where, when I was up there, he was wide-eyed and smiling, ran up to me afterwards, wanted to see all the instruments. He was already working on languages, and I was encouraging to him, which inspired him to continue in that direction. There was another girl who’s mother was Indonesian, and she was excited to keep learning the language. I helped affirm her instinct to keep learning and practicing. After these workshops, I love seeing these kids smiling, running off to the bus, emboldened. It’s so inspiring, so eye-opening. It’s very emotional for me to see these kids getting that exposure. It’s such a luxury to live in New York and perform for New Yorkers who are already so receptive, so open-minded. It helps me hone my craft. But there’s such joy in performing in places that wouldn’t be so exposed, or have less access to our kind of crazy work. I feel really lucky to be able to do this work.
Jen Shyu presents In Healing | Zero Grasses at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. The group features Ms. Shyu on vocals, piano, Taiwanese moon lute, gayageum, and Japanese biwa; Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.