Peoria, Illinois born Jen Shyu is one of the most fascinating new artists currently emerging from New York City’s experimental and avant-garde world. Or to quote Val Jeanty of Val-Inc “Jen’s work is amazing and inspiring.” What strikes me most about Jen Shyu is her stage presence and the aura she manages to create with a mere motion, with a facial expression. Even though placed in a completely different corner of the creative spectrum, it is a gift very similar to that of Genesis P-Orridge. Who, much like Jen, just by the look in her eyes manages to create greater artistic depth than other artists do with their full back catalog. No matter whether Jen appears under her own name or as part of groups like Bobby Previte’s Amniotic, her performances are nothing short of impeccable. Below is a selection of live impressions, presenting Jen Shyu on her A-game. With words by Steve Coleman/Five Elements, Patricia Magalhães/Poet & Writer, Jan VanAssen, Dale Fitzgerald/Founder & Executive Director Emeritus Jazz Gallery, Rio Sakairi/Artistic Director Jazz Gallery and Bobby Previte/New Bump Quartet.
[Patricia Magalhães | Poet]
Jen Shyu is an urban-tribeswoman. She is curiosity and dance, poetry and sense, and our collaboration is one of symbols and souls. Her compositions are an ineffable poetry, sonic art pieces with original handmade colors — they are a bouquet of wild flowers picked at dawn. Always eager to learn and discover new paths, Jen is somewhat the Bela Bartok of this time; from all sources she seeks, from all springs she drinks, and to us all she delivers the voice of beauty, tradition and modernity. She is symbiosis and semiotics, and an artist in its purest sense.
Patricia Magalhães | Brazil, January 2010
Jen Shyu’s Raging Waters, Red Sands is a concept piece of power and beauty, often calm and meditative, while simultaneously fierce in its quiet intensity. The instrumentation is unusual: viola (the excellent Mat Maneri), clarinet and bass clarinet, vibes, small percussion, voice and er hu (Jen). A dancer in mime whiteface (Satoshi Haga) uses slow Tai-chi movements that relate more to the words than to the music. The text is based upon a Chinese legend and uses traditional sources as well as contemporary poetry by the Brazilian Patrícia Magalhães. The songs are in Tetum (the language of East Timor), Taiwanese, Portuguese, and Mandarin. The themes of Raging Waters….. (at least to my understanding) are both elemental and complex: the futility of human attempts to impose our will upon nature, one’s responsibility to society vs. self and family (conflict between the personal and political), the acquisition of wisdom through trial and suffering, and the interconnectedness of all things. I won’t reveal the specifics of the tale, except to say that it ends in an erotic joy.
Jen uses traditional material, as she does in her work with Jade Tongue, but this is most definitely not “folk” music. Nor does it fall under the meaningless category of “world music.” The musicians, here and in Jade Tongue, are generally regarded as jazz players and the music contains improvised sections, but Jen is uncomfortable with being labeled a jazz artist, with good reason. I think we can say that hers is creative art music of high caliber and leave it at that. I have long been impressed by Jen’s successful incorporation of poetry and text into her compositions. (“The Chinese-Cuban Connection” from Jade Tongue is a notable example.) The combining of music with poetry or prose is a tricky business that so often results in the dilution of both. (The fondness of some truly creative musicians for bad poetry has always baffled me.) Magalhães’s poetry is eloquent and evocative, filled with images of sorrow, passion, and rage. Jen uses Sprechstimme for much of Raging Waters…: soft, clear intonations that are frequently mesmerizing.
When one listens to a great deal of music, particularly music with improvisatory elements, as I do, occasional rare moments happen, exceedingly rare, in fact, when something I reluctantly define as magical occurs. They are difficult to describe without lapsing into the sort mystical nonsense I loathe. Transcendent intervals, I suppose I can call them, in which one experiences a sense of complete immersion. Such a moment occurred for me, late in Raging Waters, Red Sands: viola and bass clarinet joined in a repetitive figure, vibes shimmered in the background, little wood and metal percussion instruments clattered and clacked, the dancer moved with glacial grace, and Jen’s lovely voice floated through it all. I left the concert feeling fortunate to have experienced the music in live performance. Thank you, Jen. And thanks to your musical colleagues.
Jan VanAssen | New York City, January 2010
[Dale Fitzgerald | Jazz Gallery]
My initial exposure to Jen Shyu’s talents was limited to her performance as a vocalist with Steve Coleman’s group, Five Elements. It was immediately clear to me that her warm, supple voice is endowed with a penetrating power that projects well, even when embedded in an instrumental ensemble. And she consistently hits the notes she targets.
Subsequently, I had numerous opportunities to attend her performances as a leader, featuring instrumental, choreographic and dancing skills.
By the time I attended the premiere of her Raging Waters, Red Sands in December of 2009 I counted myself among those “in the know” about the impressive dimensions of Jen Shyu’s multiple talents. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the complete tour de force she displayed in this fascinating project. Every single part of the performance worked and, moreover, worked with all the other parts. Each instrument was keenly balanced with the other instruments and beautifully aligned with the striking visual presentation by a skilled dancer. Into this ensemble her voice breathed a fire that made it all come magically alive. I found it one of the most remarkable performances ever staged in The Jazz Gallery and, moreover, one that would be appreciated on any major stage in the world.
Dale Fitzgerald | New York City, January 2010
I’ve known Jen Shyu for 7 years now, and most of that time she has been performing with my group. What has impressed me has been how hard Jen works on her projects; on the musical composition, the performance, and on the connection between the music and the underlying symbolism. All of Jen’s work has been developed from this solid foundation, and Raging Waters Red Sands follows this approach. It is extremely rare for a vocalist to make this kind of complete contribution to the world of creative music. This path requires a unique blend of musical skills, a passion for original research, an insatiable curiosity, and an ability to merge seemingly disparate elements into a holistic expression. Jen’s work sets an excellent example for future vocalists and musicians, the world definitely needs more creative work on this level.
Steve Coleman | New York City, January 2010
The thing that most impresses me about Jen is that she’s all the way in. Total commitment. When you watch her perform, she pulls you to her so completely, there’s no room left for doubt. This is a gift that cannot be learned or faked. You have it, or you don’t. She has it. Lot’s of people try to do movement, and it’s just embarrassing. Not her. She has a stage presence that makes you believe . We have a band together called Amniotic, more of a rock/psychedelic band than her other projects, and when we play she completely morphs into this rock goddess. Amazing.
Oh, and she can sing, too.
Bobby Previte | New York City, January 2010
[Rio Sakairi | Jazz Gallery]
Jen embodies sincerity and passion through her music. Her quest for self-expression is quite a joy to listen and watch.
Rio Sakairi | New York City, January 2010