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

A Pensive, Quietly Dynamic, Relevant Album of Japanese-Tinged Themes from Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.

The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.

The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.

On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone  interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.

October 19, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz for Radiohead Fans

What if there was such a thing as warm Radiohead? Or would that defeat the whole point of Radiohead’s music? To what degree is it necessary to rely on coldly slick digital production and mechanical arrangements to communicate a feeling of disconnection and alienation? What if a group managed to recreate the apprehensive, trippy ambience of Radiohead using real instruments instead of computers and electronic effects?

There are two answers to that question. The first you probably know because it goes back a few years – to the Radiodread album by the Easy Star All-Stars. But that band’s roots reggae cover versions are a parody. Those spoofs are as amusing as they are because roots reggae is such a viscerally warm style, 180 degrees from the source material. Then there’s the new Watershed album by eclectic Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii’s Min-Yoh Ensemble. Min-yoh is Japanese folk music; the album is an attempt to explore themes from that tradition. By whatever quirk of fate, or clever design (Fujii can be devious, and is encyclopedically diverse), this album doesn’t sound particularly Asian.

What it sounds most like is Radiohead, beginning with its somber piano introduction, evoking the first seconds of Kid A and moving on from there. That track, aptly titled The Thaw, eventually reaches a distant bustle, with Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet, Andrea Parkins’ accordion and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all emoting restlessly, separate and alone. The band pair off in twos in the sonic equivalent of split-screen cinematography on the next track, Whitewater, Parkins hypnotically holding to a Beatlesque hook. Where Radiohead use loops, this group will run a circular theme over and over, sometimes with the trumpet, other times with the piano as the other instruments scurry and diverge. The third track has the trumpet holding it down with a brooding riff very similar to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here as the other players go their separate ways, somewhat furtively. The fourth runs a loop until it literally explodes – it doesn’t take long – and then the individual pieces rise and squall over an elegantly murky backdrop. Wary atmospherics grow lively and then subside. The final cut alternates swirls of creepy vocalese with trumpet: it would be a fantastic choice as horror film music as the plot closes in on the killing scene. Of course, evoking Radiohead to any extent at all may not have been part of the plan here: sometimes great ideas are invented more or less simultaneously. Whatever the case, Radiohead fans ought to check this out: the similarities are remarkable.

Fujii also has two other more specifically jazz-oriented albums also out on her terrific little Libra label: the exuberant, boisterously funny and even more cinematic Eto, with her Orchestra New York big band; and Kaze, a a somewhat stark, sometimes abrasive, like-minded collaboration with French trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins.

October 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Is What We Lose If We Lose Japan

Watching Japanese pianists Miwa Onodera and then Hikaru Nakajo play the piano expertly, and soufully, at Pro Piano’s benefit for Japan in their wonderfully low-key recital space on Jane Street in the West Village Sunday afternoon was surreal to the extreme. Had they already been fatally poisoned by radiation from the Fukushima plant? Would they (hopefully!!!) find a place here in the US? We can talk clinically or cynically about an “extinction event,” but when we look at the individuals impacted by this catastrophe, a chilling reality sinks in. The corporate media, under instructions from the richest one tenth of one percent of the population, wilfully fail to acknowledge the reality of the situation lest there be a Grapes of Wrath in reverse, a mass exodus from the West Coast, as there should be. Forget for a minute that the water in Tokyo is undrinkable and the air there is unbreathable. Radioactive iodine a thousand times more lethal than governmentally approved “safe” levels has been found in drinking water in British Columbia; the organic milk in San Francisco is not far behind. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy, who accompanied Onodera virtuosically and intensely with a riveting, crystalline tone, went to Japan a couple of days after this concert. Pray for him if you believe in prayer.

The concert was beautiful, and austere, and also passionate, every emotion you would try to evoke if you might be playing your last show. One can only hope for composer Tsuboi Ippo, whose preludes Nakajo and Onodera played. The most hauntingly beautiful moment of the night was a duo performance by Piercy and Onodera, a poignant, elegaic Chopinesque Ippo nocturne whose sadness translated even more vividly in light of the past three weeks’ events. They also played a casually crescendoing, absolutely brilliant version of Piazzolla’s Grand Tango, Onodera holding back until the end when she crashed in with a triumphant majesty, and a couple of Gershwin pieces, a nonchalantly sly It Ain’t Necessarily So and an inventively hazy take on Summertime.

Nakajo played a series of Ippo preludes that ranged from suspenseful Chopinesque Romanticism to acidic modernism; Onodera followed with more, ending with a very smartly understatedly version of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 – where other pianists would have gone for the jugular with this showstopper, she made it a clinic in judicious dynamics. One can only wonder how many others like her won’t make it to New York in the coming months.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Shonen Knife – Super Group

To twist an already twisted album title even further, every Shonen Knife has a blog who loves them. Seriously – how can you not love Shonen Knife? Since 1980 the all-girl Japanese band’s blissfully catchy lo-fi punk-pop has been a fixture of college radio playlists and party mixes around the world. They even toured with that annoying, doomed grunge band who started the fad, and blew that band off the stage night after night. This new album, just out on Good Charamel, finds the band as fun as ever. Say what you want about their wobbly tempos (on this record, they’re actually pretty good), the fact that after all these years, nobody in the band has been able to master the English language, or that guitarist/bandleader Naoko’s chops have always been just barely sufficient to play what she writes. But she’s a walking encyclopedia of rock. There doesn’t seem to be a style she can’t lovingly appropriate and make her own, especially when she’s making fun of it. Punk pop, janglerock, psychedelia, metal, country, you name it, she puts her own devious spin on it. This new edition of the band features Naoko and drummer Etsuko joined by touring bassist Ritsuko who is now a full-fledged member of this Super Group.

As usual, the lyrics aren’t the easiest to understand, with characteristically Satie-esque song titles and even stranger subject matter. The title track is a characteristically sunny punk-pop number, Ritsuko nicking a familiar Bruce Foxton bassline – they’re all excited because their favorite band’s coming to town! The second cut has a garage punk feel: the Slug in the title has escaped his plastic bag. “Oh my goodness!” A Sabbath parody, the third track isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the classic Buddha’s Face (from the Brand New Knife album), but it’s still great. What’s most striking is how sincere and smart Naoko’s solo is – until she decides to make it hilarious.

Deer Biscuits aren’t something you step on – they’re what you feed to the deer at the park. This one’s a country song, but through the prism of the Beatles (think Act Naturally), stiff and completely tongue-in-cheek – it is impossible to hear this song and keep a straight face. Other songs return to the garage rock vibe, evoke the Smiths and then revisit the band’s trademark punk-pop. And their cover of Jet by Wings beats the original hands-down, right down to Naoko’s perfect replication of Jimmy McCullough’s silly solo. When the band sings “I thought the major was a lady suffer-a-gette,” it’s obvious that they don’t know what that means any more than the guy who wrote it. The best cut on the album is actually the bonus track at the end, Evil Birds, a strikingly bracing, eerie psych-pop number. The whole thing is a party in a box, and a great present for someone who thinks they know a lot about music – they’ll know more after they hear this.

Upcoming New York dates are at Santos Party House on Oct 16 and Brooklyn Bowl on Nov 17. Here’s the rest of the tour schedule:

10.17.2009 –

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY

10.18.2009 –

Horseshoe Tavern

Toronto, ON

10.19.2009 –

Magic Stick

Detroit, MI

10.20.2009 –

Bottom Lounge

Chicago, IL

10.21.2009 –

First Avenue & 7th St Entry

Minneapolis, MN

10.23.2009 –

The Badlander

Missoula, MT

10.24.2009 –

Tractor Tavern

Seattle, WA

10.25.2009 –

Biltmore Cabaret

Vancouver, BC

10.26.2009 –

The Nightlight

Bellingham, WA

10.27.2009 –

Doug Fir Lounge

Portland, OR

10.29.2009 –

Rickshaw Stop

San Francisco, CA

10.30.2009 –

Blank Club

San Jose, CA

10.31.2009 –

The Cellar Door

Visalia, CA

11.01.2009 –

Uptown

Oakland, CA

11.02.2009 –

Echo

Los Angeles, CA

11.03.2009 –

Casbah

San Diego, CA

11.04.2009 –

Plush

Tucson, AZ

11.06.2009 –

Sam’s Burger Joint

San Antonio, TX

11.07.2009 –

Fun Fun Fun Festival

Austin, TX

11.08.2009 –

Numbers Nightclub

Houston, TX

11.10.2009 –

Spanish Moon

Baton Rouge, LA

11.11.2009 –

Hi Tone

Memphis, TN

11.12.2009 –

The E.A.R.L.

Atlanta, GA

11.13.2009 –

Plaza Bowl

Richmond, VA

11.14.2009 –

Maxwells

Hoboken, NJ

11.15.2009 –

Great Scotts

Allston, MA

11.16.2009 – 8:00 pm

Johnny Brenda’s, 21+

Philadelphia, PA

buy tickets

11.17.2009 –

Brooklyn Bowl

Brooklyn, NY

11.18.2009 –

Mohawk Place

Buffalo, NY

September 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, Reviews, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments