Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

April 23, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Side of a Grimly Prophetic Post-9/11 Masterpiece

Pianist Vijay Iyer offers some eerie context for the new album InWhatStrumentals – streaming at Bandcamp – an instrumental version of his classic 2003 In What Language collaboration with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd. “We were just coming to terms with the facts on the ground, which today seem frighteningly ordinary: mounting intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and other nonwhite people; traumatic raids of immigrant communities by the INS (later Homeland Security); the prospect of endless, amoral war waged under false pretenses; the callous neoliberal agendas of globalization and disaster capitalism; and an unprecedented power grab enacted under cover of jingoism and feigned incompetence.”

Plus ça change!

What differentiates this from the original is that there’s no lyric track. This turns out to be the rare hip-hop album whose music is as turbulently cinematic as the lyrics. The original album title was taken from a quote by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who a few months prior to 9/11 was detained while trying to catch a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport and then sent back, rather than being allowed to continue on his way. The gist of Panahi’s question is that reason and common sense are useless when dealing with little Hitlers.

Listening to the music without the voices of a parade of people persecuted during the wave of anti-immigrant paranoia after 9/11 is a bit strange, and removes a whole layer of context. But that music has held up magnificently. The opening number, the first movement of the suite The Color of My Circumference has Iyer’s darkly swarming piano rivulets over anxious, insistent, circular rhythms. Eventually drummer Trevor Holder and bassist Stephan Crump join the pummeling attack, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax and Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet floating overhead. Everything soon fades out.

Along with Ladd’s coldly techy layers of spy-movie keys, cellist Dana Leong figures heavily into the ominous swirl and staggered pulse of The Density of the 19th Century. Throughout the rest of the album, the disquiet is relentless, whether from guitarist Liberty Ellman’s bordering-on-frantic, circular riffs, Akinmusire’s forlorn, desolate lines, Mahanthappa’s enigmatic bhangra riffage, and Holder’s tense, practically motorik rhythms. Some of these themes are over in little more than two minutes, others take more time to draw you into the vortex. Sometimes the bustle of these airport scenarios masks the sinister forces lurking at the gates, other times that cold suspicion and assumption of criminality is front and center. So when the band pivot toward warm roots reggae in Taking Back the Airplane, or offer calm, enveloping hope in Asylum, the effect is especially striking.

The artists are donating proceeds from sales of the new record to organizations supporting immigrant groups and communities of color imperiled by the lockdown.

May 24, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Douglas Radically Reinvents Dizzy Gillespie at Jazz at Lincoln Center

On one hand, there were probably a thousand groups around the world who were doing what what trumpeter Dave Douglas and his sextet did this past evening at Jazz at Lincoln Center  But those bands’ improvisations on Dizzy Gillespie themes were probably limited to solos around the horn. What Douglas did was simple on the surface – distilling riffs and phrases into their simplest, catchiest essence, often to the point of unrecognizability, and then jamming them out. But it was far more sophisticated than that.

The result was essentially two practically hourlong suites, packed with pairings, echoing, catch-and-follow and sometimes some pretty wild, untethered collective improvisation, drummer Joey Baron signaling the changes with gusty  abandon. The rest of Douglas’ band – second trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Gerald Clayton and Linda May Han Oh – turned in the kind of transcendence and joyous interplay you would expect from some of the world’s foremost improvisers.

Looking behind him down on the streetlights’ reflections on rain-soaked Broadway, Douglas went for appropriately distant, forlorn solo ambience to open the night’s second show. Oh bowed sepulchral high harmonics, Baron icing the windows, then the rest of the group joined, pensive and sparingly.

For the rest of the set, Douglas was Douglas; choosing his spots, always finding the mot juste. Space is a big part of his game: it seemed even more so this evening, whether punctuating the themes with sudden cloudbursts, wafting minor blues, snazzy sixteenth-note volleys or achingly melismatic lines that seemed microtonal – which probably weren’t, but Douglas can fake you out like that. For somebody who plays as many notes as he does, it’s amazing that he doesn’t waste any. Akinmusire basically played the role of flugelhornist: lots of long, methodically crescendoing legato solos, hovering around the midrange for the most part, occasionally in close formation with the bandleader.

Watching Frisell as a sideman was a trip. Only Baron was more exuberant. Yet Frisell also seemed to be the captain of the gravitas team, which also comprised Oh and Clayton. The pianist had been playing eerie, Satie-esque close harmonies for much of the set; it wasn’t long before Frisell decided to slam-dunk a couple. Otherwise, his shimmering, icily reverbtoned washes contrasted with judicious blues, shards of jangle and clang and an unexpectedly lighthearted detour into quasi-funk that Baron couldn’t resist spicing with polyrhythms.

Likewise, the drummer traded rims and hardware with Oh’s sotto-voce swings and vaults from the highest branches, finally getting a long solo in an epic Night in Tunisia and taking it from Buddy Rich to Wipeout and back. Oh and Clayton would throw a hot potato back and forth when least expected, notwithstanding how much murk and mystery they were building. When A Night in Tunisia finally coalesced, ironically it was Clayton who pulled away the latin noir he’d been shadowing all night,in to some jubilant tumbles. Meanwhile, Oh walked the changes  – but in Arabic hijaz mode, and expanded from there. Straight-up swing has seldom been so dark or interesting. The group finally closed with a verse of somebody else’s well-known tune: it wouldn’t have meant a thing if they hadn’t swung it as they had all night.

Douglas’ next stop on the never-ending tour is a duo show with similarly lyrical, individualistic pianist Uri Caine on Feb 27 at 7:30 PM at Filharmonie Brno in Brno, Czech Republic.

February 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment