Bass and Vocals Like Never Before
Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.
The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.
The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.
The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.
No comments yet.