Jen Shyu: No More Sequined Dresses

The time that Jen Shyu spent in Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea, Cuba and Brazil has broadened her musical language, but she still considers herself an experimental jazz vocalist.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

A conversation in Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment
February 23, 2015—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

“The voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world,” beamed Jen Shyu when we visited her at her apartment in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And indeed, she has met people from all over the world—her peregrinations have taken her from Peoria, Illinois (where she was born) to extended stays in San Francisco, Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea—she returned there again for a six-month residency just a couple of days after our talk—and New York City, which has only been her home base since 2004.

Those worldwide travels have also broadened her aesthetic horizons far beyond anything she imagined growing up in the Midwest. It was there where she initially trained to be a concert pianist (she performed the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13) and then became obsessed with musical theater (where she developed her passion for singing). She even remembers composing what she described as “Rachmaninoff-ish songs.” But she did not really feel a sense of personal ownership over what she was doing musically until she started exploring jazz, which she still considers the core of what she does musically. As she explained:

Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back. … I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it.

Admittedly Jen Shyu’s definition of jazz is extremely broad at this point. She was deeply influenced to go in her current music direction through formidable interactions with multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, a pioneer of the Asian-American jazz movement, and her many years of performing with the omnivorous Steve Coleman in his group Five Elements. It’s a direction that took her from performing standards “wearing very sequiny dresses” to writing her own material and becoming proficient on many traditional East Asian instruments and in many different traditional vocal techniques, including Indonesian sindhen and Korean p’ansori. In fact, her monodrama Solo Rites: Seven Breaths–which incorporates many of the techniques she acquired through her immersive Asian travels and synthesizes them into a fluid whole—is a far cry from what you might usually hear in most jazz venues. However, the mesmerizing performance I heard her give of it took place at The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit space that showcases experimental jazz. But is it still jazz?

That’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. … Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. That whole show, there’s a structure, but … there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. … I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute.

Shyu’s referencing of “stories of struggle” in her explanation of how even her most musically far-ranging work is still connected to jazz is very telling. Jazz has been the soundtrack of social struggle long before the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and it is something that all three of the vocalists we spoke with addressed in describing their work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. … I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.


Pages of Chinese calligraphy in frames on the floor next to a laptop and a few DVDs on a desk

Jen Shyu’s work area is an amalgam of old and new: framed pages of Chinese calligraphy share space with a laptop and DVDs.

Frank J. Oteri: You do tons of different things as a musician, but in the first sentence of your bio you describe yourself as an experimental jazz vocalist. So I wanted to ask what that means to you.

Jen Shyu: Experimental is the first thing, I think. I always will be trying to break down any preconceived notions of anything that I’m supposedly doing. The word jazz is in there because I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it. And vocalist? Voice has become my main instrument, even though I think my first love was dance, and it still is a deep love of mine. But I find that the voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world. Even if I don’t speak the language yet, if I explain I’m looking for these older songs, then if I sing a little from another culture, then they’ll understand what I’m looking for, just from hearing that. And then they’ll understand, oh, this isn’t just someone wanting something from our culture. There’s a relationship that’s immediately built. I feel like I’m very lucky to have such a tool that can make that connection with people so quickly.

FJO: So many of the things you just said, both about jazz and about being a vocalist, are about tradition: going and gathering stuff from another culture or dealing with elders. But then there’s that word “experimental,” which is the opposite. Those other words are about yesterday, but experimental is about tomorrow. So there’s a pull.

JS: Yes, very true. You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but for me I feel like we can learn so much from looking at tradition. A lot of traditions are built on necessity and just looking at what’s the best way, what’s the most efficient way that we can do something, while honoring our ancestors. So it’s a beautiful marriage, being innovative but honoring those who came before us and showed us the way. I think they work together very well. For me, to gather the best of those worlds is how I would reach the full potential of who I am as an artist. Also, when I see those qualities in other people’s work, this kind of nod to the future but with deep rootedness in the past, I’m immediately attracted. Whenever I see that relationship in a deep way where it is something new that I haven’t seen before, then that’s my “ooh, I want to work with that artist.” To me it’s very clear when something is coming from a sincere place as opposed to coming from “we’re just trying to get over” place.

FJO: I think we’re now more in a state of détente than we’ve been in quite a while, but over the last 50 years there have often been great tensions between experimental jazz and more straight-ahead approaches, to the point that they’ve felt like warring camps.

JS: I try not to worry too much about that. I’ve met and had wonderful interactions with people from both camps, from different camps that maybe, if they themselves came together, might have these great tensions. I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute. So I have to know where my parents are from. I was born in America, so what does that mean? I’ve been so lucky to have met people like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Steve Coleman, and Von Freeman. Each of those meetings meant so much to me, to be able to interact—I feel like, wow, if I were able to have met John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, it’s the same weight of meeting someone with such creativity and vision. What if I could have met Bartók, who’s like this kind of shining idol to me? It’s been humbling along my own journey to intersect with these big geniuses in our time. I feel like I’m so lucky to be here.

I’m just focused on the path. Being able to travel and spend long periods of time in other countries exploring my own ancestry, but also going to Korea because I wanted to go. That’s a gift. So I think there’s a way to find peace in all of these supposedly opposing viewpoints. I think everyone ultimately is searching for their own voice and how they will contribute. Human nature is that way, especially when you have very opinionated people. They’re going to feel like things could be in this direction or could go in that direction. But I hope that as long as everyone’s beliefs and music can be allowed to happen and be heard, I think it’ll be okay.

A page of handwritten manuscript and a Bartók score published by Universal Edition are side by side in front of a Boradman upright piano

Jen Shyu keeps some Bartók sheet music alongside an original score at the upright piano in her apartment.

FJO: To take this back to being a vocalist, specifically being a jazz vocalist, that phrase has a special meaning as opposed to another kind of vocalist. So I was wondering what for you distinguishes a jazz approach to singing versus other kinds of approaches to singing.

JS: The deepest study I did of the tradition of jazz improvisation was with Steve Coleman, just sitting at the piano and then listening on repeat to Art Tatum phrases and Charlie Parker phrases and then singing them and then learning them on the piano. Then looking at those small fractions of a second to look at why they did this. “What do you think, Jen? How are you going to build that in there?” And for a long period of time—years—going that deep with other musicians, making music and performing, being tested on the bandstand and being just terrified. In the first year I was just terrified, but knowing, “Well, I’m a performer, so be cool on stage.” Then after a gig, “I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand this.” Going back and asking Steve, “What was this one? How did this happen?” That constant dialogue of seeking and growing and messing up all the time, but then getting back up—having come from a classical background, making mistakes and errors was such an issue. It was a very different approach to the right and wrong of things. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was about, “How are you going to improvise out of this and make the best out of whatever just happened?” It was a complete shift for me. Then with the voice, what was interesting was that Steve really didn’t want me to approach singing jazz or whatever, at least in his band, in a normal—I don’t want to say normal, but I guess in a traditional—way. He’s like, “Jen, we’re not going to be the band playing behind you. You’re going to be part of us. And you’re going to know as much information as we do, and you’re going to be free to do whatever you want and not just be out in front.”

FJO: That’s very interesting because you can instantly recognize the voice of the most iconic jazz singers—people like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—and their voice is primarily what people are listening to. But the whole tradition of jazz singing was largely about being the front person, but at the same time usually having less control either of the actual material they sang (in terms of authorship) or how it was arranged. There are gender issues wrapped up with that—the female singer, the male band leader, etc. Somebody who really broke that mold was Abbey Lincoln.

JS: I love Abbey. Again I thank Steve so much for introducing me to Abbey and I’ll never ever forget being at her house. It was me and Steve and then a poet who’s his wife, Patricia. It was just the four of us talking with each other and she was so strong. When we first met, she kissed us all on the lips. She just held me and then kissed me on the lips. I was kind of terrified. But then Steve was like, “Jen, call her. Now you’ve seen her, call her. Just talk to her. It’s not a big deal. Who knows how long she’ll—” and of course, just a few years later, she passed. But I did call her and started to ask her about growing up, what was her time like in Chicago? I’ll never forget—this is a funny anecdote—Steve, when we were at her house, told me to give her my CD. I think I gave her a demo or something of For Now maybe. It was so many years ago. I felt weird about it, but he’s like, “No Jen, give her your CD.” And then Abbey, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll listen to it.” I called her when I was in Chicago, just called her up and we were talking and then I said, “I don’t know if you got to hear my CD or not.” And she’s like, “I’m not listening to your CD. If I were listening to music, I’d be listening to my own music, or just listening to the silence.” I learned a lot from that. The obvious things, you know: here’s a master, don’t be laying your stuff. Of course Steve kind of pushed me, but just to hear her say that was a great lesson for me.

FJO: I think with Abbey, the other layer there is that, whereas I think it would have been really cool to get her reaction to Jade Tongue, the album you gave her is predominantly standards. This is stuff that I think she did incredibly well back when she recorded that stuff in the ‘50s with Max Roach and Julian Priester and those incredible groups. But it’s what she rebelled against. She rejected that material for herself, so why would she listen to you sing it.

JS: Yeah, completely. I got to hear her sing all of her songs at Aaron Davis Hall. I even got to sing one of her songs in an early production of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State. He wanted me to sing one of her songs. I sang it half in Chinese and half in English. He had me translate it into Mandarin. So she is such a model to me, her phrasing and her technical things also. Steve—because Steve played with her, he was one of her sidemen—was always pointing those out to me. Actually one of the ballads on Jade Tongue, “The Human Color of our Veins,” was totally inspired by Abbey. I was completely channeling her in a way for that song.

CD cover for For Now featuring a picture of Jen Shyu singing into a microphone

Jen Shyu’s first, self-released CD For Now, from 2002 is a collection of eclectically arranged standards.

FJO: There’s a seismic shift between your first album, For Now, and Jade Tongue. Already on For Now, even though you’re doing standards, the arrangements are fascinating and often pretty weird. I was particularly intrigued by what you did with “Lover Man.” It sounds like no other version of that song, but it’s still not your song. And so you went from doing that to doing all your own music. I’m wondering how that transition happened and how gradual it was.

JS: Well, it began before I left for Taiwan and then went to New York. Francis and Steve both really encouraged me to go to Taiwan. I had this instinct that somehow I had to go there, because I was dealing with these folk songs that my dad had given me from my fourth grand auntie. I was already treating them in the Bay Area. I was using sheet music and then just kind of doing arrangements of them, but I knew it wasn’t deep. My own approach to it was just musical; it wasn’t grounded on experience. So Francis was very encouraging when I told him that I needed to go to Taiwan. He’s like, “Yeah, that would be good. I think you should just hang out.” That’s exactly the words he used. Then when I met Steve, he had this project he was doing—the album Lucidarium where he was using a lot of voices. That’s kind of how we met. He was looking for vocalists at the time. I studied at his house for like eight days. Right after that I went to his house in Allentown and starting studying Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Then he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go to Taiwan, but I didn’t get this grant.” It was a grant I’d written, but I didn’t get it, and so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. He said, “Jen, you should just go. Borrow money from your parents and just go. You know, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Save up money from whatever jobs you had in San Francisco and just go and you’ll figure it out. If you don’t go, you may as well move to New York, because you’re kind of spinning your wheels here.” He just knew I was. I was kind of still in the jazz singer role. I was wearing the dresses. I had a gig in a restaurant where I was wearing very sequiny dresses. Then Steve told me this story of Abbey Lincoln. She used to wear those dresses, too. She said Max had told her to throw away that dress. So it was like, whoa, that’s so strange that that would parallel what happened.

So I went to Taiwan for two months. I didn’t have keys. I was not homeless, but I didn’t have a place. I had all my stuff. I moved from San Francisco. I dropped everything and went to Taiwan. Then I came back. I did a recording with Steve briefly, and then I went to Cuba, because I was interested in the Chinese diaspora there. Again it was Steve saying, “Yeah, why not. Go to Cuba. Do it.” So I went there, and that is what inspired the piece that ended up on Jade Tongue, the whole suite. I just had a sense that these are stories that needed to be heard. And I wanted to tell them musically and originally.

The cover for Jen Shyu's CD Jade Tongue featuring original abstract art.

Jen Shyu’s 2008 album Jade Tongue is a fascinating synthesis of experimental jazz and traditional Asian music.

But the shift was from working with Steve, starting in 2003. It was like an apprenticeship. It really turned my world upside down, just the work I had to do to sing his music. It changed everything. You can hear a lot of his influence I think in Jade Tongue, in terms of composition. That was 2009, so it was a long period of gestation, taking extra musical things and translating them to music and then using traditional texts. It was all coming together. I think Jade Tongue was this kind of “well, this is all the work I’ve done, let me just put it on a record.” I had started my own band and it was really exciting for me; it felt like a true transformation.

FJO: Now you talk about having the whole world turned upside down, but it was the second time that had happened to you musically, because before you got involved with singing jazz you actually had a classical music background. So you went from performing other people’s music and doing your best never to make a mistake, trying to be totally in control, to doing music where your individual interpretation became the focal point even if it was someone else’s music to, finally, doing your own music.

JS: Oh, and it’s still going Frank. It’s very true. But I’m always thankful for the classical training, starting from ballet, piano, violin—the rigor of practicing four or six hours a day and competing, doing piano competitions and violin competitions. In the classical realm, I think my piano performance excelled the most, so I started to focus on the piano. But at the same, right when I started doing that, I was beginning musical theater. So I was doing shows like A Chorus Line; I was Diana Morales in A Chorus Line.

Right at the time when I was most seriously doing piano, like from eighth grade through junior year of high school, I was with an amazing teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. My teacher was Roger Shields, this brilliant piano teacher. I was memorizing all the repertoire for the competitions—a Bach toccata and fugue, Chopin barcarolles, Stravinsky etudes. Somehow a year after I started with him, I was playing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I think I was 13. I don’t know how I did it, but I was up there playing. So that kind of focus and training has prepared me for a lot that I don’t even realize because I was young.

But I didn’t improvise at all when I was that age. My only improvising came from singing. When I began musical theater and getting obsessed with musicals, I would sing in the garage. When no one was home, I would sing Natalie Cole, that famous arrangement with her father, “Unforgettable.” I would just imitate it and try to get that voice. I felt there was something magical and fun here that was so different from the rigor of piano and all of that. Being on the stage doing shows was like the liberation for me, so different from performing and competing in this context of I had to get this right. So it was all this stuff happening. Then when I went to college, I started focusing on opera. On opera! So it was like taking the voice and becoming like, let’s train it in the Western classical way, which was what I’d done with ballet and piano and violin. I was just following that track. I trained with Jennifer Lane, an amazing voice teacher at Stanford who was molding me into an opera singer—the breathing and the control, the technique, we really got into the nitty-gritty of that.

But voice was the fun thing. So entering into jazz via the voice was kind of a natural thing. That’s what got me out of the classical realm. Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back.

FJO: So all the time you were doing classical music, no one ever suggested or it never occurred to you that you could write your own music?

JS: No one pushed me. My parents weren’t artists. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a librarian. And they loved classical music. That’s kind of all that they knew about. My teacher at the time, and we’ve talked a lot since then, what he feels as a piano teacher is that when he’s training these young artists to do competitions, the pressure is so high on him from the parents. You know, my child has to achieve this and this. So there’s no room or time for pedagogy to develop with improvisation and composition. There’s just no time, if he’s on that pressure to schedule—O.K., now she has to memorize the complete Bach preludes and fugues.

But I did start writing, I think at the end of high school, these romantic, Rachmaninoff-ish songs, art songs in English, but very little. I can really think of only a few pieces. Then I started writing a little more at Stanford when I was in composition class. But I felt like it wasn’t a natural thing for me. I felt like a performer. I was a technician. My training was so much of that, execution and delivering of the song or the material. I kind of regret that I didn’t take a second to really write my own things, but I guess I’m making up for it now.

FJO: You’ve definitely more than made up for it. But the other part of the whole equation for you is that while you said your parents loved classical music even though they didn’t have a musical background, the music you’re talking about is Western classical music.

JS: Yes.

FJO: But such a fundamental part of your mature musical identity has involved incorporating elements of traditional Asian music. Not just music from your own particular background—Taiwanese and Timorese music—but also material from mainland China, Korea, all of this. Did you grow up hearing any Chinese music?

JS: No, very little, and what I heard of it was very commercialized, what you’d hear in, you know, ding ding ding-ding-ding. It was kind of comical what we heard. We’d hear it at gatherings of the few Asian families that were in Peoria. We would gather for Chinese New Year and have dinner, and then they’d play this stuff on the speakers. I couldn’t stand it, and at that age I had no interest. To me it was all about the great Western composers. My interest in that stuff began in the Bay Area with Francis and Jon and all the amazing artists that I met there. They were nudging me to check out some of this music. Then I heard things on recordings that I’d never heard before. I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco and I found this French label had released this Aboriginal Taiwanese music, the indigenous music from Taiwan. I’d never heard it. And I listened to it and it was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like African music. This sounds like these chants that I had begun to learn of the Santeria. Santeria, which is in the Lucumi language, sounded so much closer to that than any of this “Chinese music” that I’d heard.

So I wanted to understand where that came from. I was determined from that point on. There’s a lot I don’t know about music in Asia. And I naturally was drawn to this stuff that I’d never heard before and that is not played in the States. People don’t know about it, so I’ve been on a mission to not just learn the music on a surface level, but to understand where it came from. What does Taiwanese indigenous music have to do with the Ainu people in Japan? What about Malaysia or the Philippines, or the Austronesian migration? It gets much more difficult to trace. It’s impossible to say Chinese music. You’ve got thousands of different ethnic tribes and you’ve got all these different dialects. And then, okay, let’s go to Indonesia. Oh my God, there are hundreds of different kinds of music in this archipelago. It’s so much bigger and I feel like a mission for me, or it’s my duty having been born here and having that advantage of English as my native tongue. I feel like I have to be that bridge. There are a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, like racism as a child, that I just knew this is because people don’t have exposure to these other people, and I have to break all of that. Every stereotype. I just feel like it’s my job to do that.

Jen Shyu singing and ribbing a brass bowl in an outdoor ceremony .

Jen Shyu performing in Indonesia. (Photo by Ganug Nugroho.)

FJO: In terms of how this mission connects to jazz, jazz has always been this music that combats social injustice, even before the civil rights movement, Ellington, and even Louis Armstrong—Benny Goodman playing with an integrated band, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” which is about a lynching. And then in the 1960s things like Max Roach’s We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, which Abbey Lincoln was such an important part of. This is extremely visceral music that serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices that were wrought upon the African-American community in the USA. But other groups have stories to tell through this music as well. There have now been two generations of Asian-American jazz musicians—Francis Wong, whom you worked with, and the late Fred Ho, who was based here in New York for many years—making very charged political music that speaks to these issues. How central is the politics to your music?

JS: It’s a question that’s always in the forefront of my mind. I myself am kind of turned off when someone’s yelling at me to do this or think that way. I think there are ways to address these issues in a way that is not—oh, how do I say this? I think even doing what I’m doing oftentimes is already a political statement. But I feel like the power of just doing and being oftentimes does more, and it affects people more and they want to listen. So, for instance, a song that I have recently been writing and performing, part of it is I’m interpreting a traditional song from East Timor, at the beginning and at the end, so they’re kind of the bookends of the piece. Then inside are my own lyrics. It was inspired a little by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and I guess it is kind of a protest song.

I wanted a beautiful melody, then inside is a text that’s quite violent. At the end are actual testimonies of women who were raped by the Indonesian military. These women were reporting back as part of this commission report that was made. But I think it’s beautiful. And so I believe people will want to hear it. It’s a statement. I’m not telling people what to do; it’s more like it’s just their testimony.

Everything that we do should have meaning. Fred had told me, “Jen, your music should be revolutionary.” Fred told me a lot of things and I didn’t agree with everything. I miss him because he was so strong about what he stood for and I loved that. We had a meeting once where it was just like “I’m going to tell you about the music in the street,” things that I’d never talked so openly about before. So I appreciate that. Let me tell you, I’m constantly grappling. I still get mistaken for being some of my Asian colleagues, like Linda Oh. Someone had said, “Oh, your bass playing is so wonderful.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not Linda Oh.” He’s like, “You’re not?” and just ran away. I get it all the time, I mean all the time, and from people who really should know. Again, I’m not accusing anyone, but it’s just very clear we have a lot more work to do. As a female artist and an Asian artist, it all means something. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s in all my work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. I think that song is pretty strong and graphic, but I still think it’s beautiful and that it will be something people will want to hear. That’s why I love Joni Mitchell. I think there’s the balance there that is necessary. I mean for me, it’s there. But I also think that just the way I perform or now, you know, I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.

A traditional four-string Chinese moon lute

This yueqin, a four-stringed Chinese moon lute, is one of many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

FJO: There are a couple of other pieces that I heard of yours that went toward that direction like Inner Chapters, but your solo piece in which you play all these instruments—Solo Rites: Seven Breaths—is the furthest away from jazz of anything you’ve done. It’s the furthest away from wearing that sequined dress and singing “Lover Boy” that I can imagine. So is it still jazz?

JS: Well, that’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. Someone asked me, “Are you trying to redefine?” I believe that I’m always trying to redefine anything I do, but it’s not for the sake of just doing it. It’s more like I’m trying to find the fullest expression of me. There are so many stories. It was almost three years that I was out in Indonesia and there’s so much transformation that occurred. Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. I mean you have to start telling the whole story. But I feel like if you’re looking at improvisation, that whole show, I mean there’s a structure, but every moment I’m dealing with the lighting. I’m dealing with the sound. I’m dealing with what I hear from the audience. So there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. I’m channeling these different characters.

Jen Shyu, wearing a traditional white Asian dress and a red scarf sitting on the stage surrounded by a moon lute and a zither singing and making hand gestures

Jen Shyu performing Solo Rites: Seven Breaths at Roulette in 2014. (Photo by Steven Schreiber.)

Whatever you want to call it, I think the essence of it is not just jazz at all. There are traditions that I’m quoting directly from sometimes. But also in my own compositions, just embedded inside the music and my arrangements, are qualities from these other traditions that I’ve been inside of. So, again, because I wrote Seven Breaths over such a long period of time, when I worked with the director Garin Nugroho to put it all together it was more like a summation. Let’s find an order. He found order very intuitively by looking at all my field work, and that’s where the structure came from.

He’s a wonderful director. He’s a filmmaker primarily. I told you about finding people’s work that magically and beautifully melded the modern and the traditional. When I saw his film Opera Jawa, that’s exactly what I felt. I was like, “I have to find him.” So I asked him to direct this piece and it was the first time he directed a solo show, one performer. When we were sitting there, he said, “Okay, Jen, this is the first structure.” I came up with the breaths part, but he came up with seven.

Starting in East Timor, then Java, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and then Korea, back to Indonesia, but [this time] Kalimantan, which is where I did some fieldwork. Then East Timor again. Returning home, then kind of having a nowhere world, a nowhere zone. We were trying to lose all culture. Each world had a message: East Timor was departing home. In Java, I was really interested in the oppression of women that I experienced when I was there. Not me, but seeing all my friends who were Javanese women. Overall I felt that a woman is behind the husband; she gives up everything, even if she was a great artist she gives up everything to support the husband. It’s very normal there. But some women were not happy with that arrangement, so I was addressing that.

FJO: In terms of definitions, I didn’t know until this morning that you had studied opera. It’s interesting that you also call the work an opera because that’s another loaded word, maybe even more so than jazz, or—even more complicated—jazz opera. What does that mean?

JS: I know. Well opera, I’m still grappling with this word. Now that I’m starting to tour it, and people are like, “Well, what is it?” Most recently, I called it a solo music drama. But I like opera because the focus is the voice. The voice is what ties everything together. So, that was in my mind. That’s how I think of opera—the voice is the main message giver. But just in this sense. I’m not singing like a Western classical opera singer, which I was trained in, but then you go to Java and it’s their version of classical singing, which is different though in some ways, there’s some overlap. Then in Korea, pansori, you know, actually that’s more folk music to them. But it’s an opera in that it’s dramatic, playing all these roles. In Korea they have fully staged versions of pansori which I’ve seen. Instead of having just one character, they have a whole cast playing all the characters. But again, I’m not so interested in the hard and fast definitions. If I’m concerned with making something new, then that’s fine. Those things will have to somehow be lost anyway. But jazz opera—maybe you can come up with a better word. I just make this stuff, so I’m still experimenting with this label.

Jen Shyu singing and playing a moon lute on an outdoor stage in a park.

Jen Shyu performing in South Korea. (Photo by Thitipol Kanteewong.)

FJO: There’s one other thing that I would hate not to talk about because it’s just such a great album, your duo Synastry with Mark Dresser. What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s just the two of you and it’s really exposed. That’s another thing that’s been an undercurrent tradition in terms of jazz vocal albums where somebody works with one musician. You know, Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, but perhaps more to the point, in terms of its relationship to this record, are all the voice and bass duets that Sheila Jordan has done. Was her work in any way an inspiration for what you and Mark did?

The CD cover for Synastry featuring original abstract artwork

On Synastry, a duo album by Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser released on PI in 2011, the voice and double bass are equal partners.

JS: Not directly with this album, but I love Sheila and the fact that I can email her and we have contact is amazing. It’s a blessing to me. But this project was more an idea that Mark and I just came up with. We were at the International Society of Improvised Music, ISIM, in 2008 when I was singing with Steve Coleman. We met, and then we thought let’s just have a session. Let’s improvise together, and we did. I think we rehearsed at Cornelia Street [Café] for the first time, and then we just kept meeting up. If he was in New York, or if I was in San Diego or L.A., we would do a gig. And we both realized that it was very full, even though it was just two of us. You know, I was always doing movement, and his sound is already a whole world. That was very easy for me to step into. And we had this material that was all our own compositions.

FJO: And I do think you’re again engaging with redefining things. Most people, when they hear a singer and an instrumentalist, will probably hear the singer above whomever the singer’s singing with. You were talking before about Javanese classical singing which is unusual in that singers are often in the background and are just one of many layers; their voices are not supposed to be foregrounded. But in pretty much any other musical tradition I can think of, if there’s a singer, the singer’s out front. So you think, “O.K. Jen Shyu with Mark Dresser.” But it wasn’t singer and accompanist. It really was a duo in the full sense of the word. You were equal partners and that’s what makes it so musically compelling.

JS: Well, he’s a melodicist. I mean, big time. He’s just lower. And then he’s got those harmonics that he uses, so it was this world that I was just dancing around. In terms of melody, I never felt like he was just supporting me. I felt like we were completely just having this conversation and always discovering.

FJO: In terms of your output thus far, it’s sort of a left turn. You had this progression from singing standards to being a sideperson for Steve Coleman to creating music for your own group to doing an immersive solo performance piece that explores other cultures. That path seemed like a linear developmental trajectory, but this duo was something else entirely, at least to my ears. So are there going to be other turns in the road? Two years from now, might you be singing standards again somewhere, or doing another duo with somebody. Are all of these still options on the table or do you have a clear direction of where you want to go and so you’ll just follow that?

JS: Well, it’s funny you say that. There is probably a record coming out that I’m a sidewoman on and there are some standards on it. I feel like it’s all related. The thing with Mark really came out of my relationship with Mark as an artist. I feel it is part of the path. As humans, we have so many different aspects.

My newest album is Sounds and Cries of the World. Right now that’s the title. I think that’s going to end up being the title. It really was a culmination. A lot of material is from Solo Rites, but with the band. It was a whole other thing, and for me such a great joy. Wow, I don’t even know how to define it; it’s just getting into this other realm of sound that I believe exists. A lot of those songs came out of dreams that I had when I was in East Timor, very strange, oftentimes scary dreams. They’re laden with everything I absorbed from my travels, especially the last three years.

I do a lot of things. There’s a duo with Ben Monder as well. We haven’t recorded anything, but we will, I think. It’s about these radiant people that I’m able to share these moments with. I love Mat Maneri, too, so he’s been in a lot of my recent projects. I’m drawn toward certain artists. I’m just following the music and the imagined music—I’m following that as well.

A two-stringed moon lute resting horizontally on the floor next to a rug and a puzzle.

A two-stringed Taiwanese moon lute, another one of the many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

Read conversations with two other extraordinary vocalists:
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors