Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann: Breaking the Song Barrier
Shyu and Bleckmann have gained notoriety for their continuous collaborations with certain jazz artists. For Bleckmann, one of his longest engagements is with guitarist Ben Monder. Critics and fans have lauded the duo's work for its sonic ferocity, rhythmic and harmonic intricacy, and for their bold and enterprising take on jazz and rock favorites. Bleckmann can be heard on Monder's Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005) and Excavation (2000, reissued by Sunnyside in 2006) and on their co- releases No Boat (Songlines, 1997) and At Night (Songlines, 2007).
From left: Theo Bleckmann, Ben Monder
On his collaboration with Monder, Bleckmann recalls: "I first heard him in Pat Zimmerly's band in 1994; he had a group with Ben. I was completely into what he was doing, specifically interested in what he was doing sonicallythe sounds he was making. I called him for a gig, and it was clear in the first rehearsal or so that there was a lot of synergy between us. We've been working in duo and quartet since then. It's a good combination because we complement each other in a weird way. I do things that he wouldn't normally consider and vice versa. That's really important, because it allows us to grow. There's enough rub there. For instance, Ben introduced me to Meshuggah, and as much as I hate death metal, I think they're incredible. And I might introduce Ben to someone like Kate Bush. I bring something to the table and he brings something to the table."
Shyu's longest-standing engagement to date has been with Steve Coleman and Five Elements. Tenure with this band is not something to take lightly; it's an extraordinarily challenging gig that has involved the likes of Robin Eubanks, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Holland, Gary Thomas, Gene Lake, Geri Allen, Ambrose Akinmusire, Ravi Coltrane and many others. Coleman has used vocals before, but Shyu's timbral sensitivity, linguistic and faux-linguistic capabilities and her tremendous aural faculty have made her an incomparable and instantly recognizable part of Five Elements. Her talents are showcased on Weaving Symbolics (Label Bleu, 2006) and Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010).
"I knew [drummer] Dafnis Prieto first, and that's how I met Steve, who was just putting together his Lucidarium project and was looking for vocalists. Having just moved to New York, I was the most available in filling that role for his group. It's like being any other instrumentalist, learning all the parts, having different people come through. What's great is, you develop this entire repertoire. The way Steve runs his gigs is that we don't know what the set list is going to be, we just have all this music at our disposal. The focus is on improvisation and, from my perspective, being conscious of tone and timbre. Our external focus is on harmony, rhythm, melody, et cetera. There isn't a stand-alone piece, for example, where we focused solely on timbre. A lot cross-rhythmic conceptsthat's a core part of it."
Shyu and Bleckmann have both been getting around the scene for more than these engagements, though. Shyu has recorded with Miles Okazaki, Bobby Previte, Taylor Ho Bynum and Anthony Braxton in his opera Trillium E. Bleckmann has had a prolific career in collaboration with John Hollenbeck and Gary Versace in Refuge Trio, and as a sideman in Hollenbeck's various bands, including his Large Ensemble. These are gigs that demand a different level of involvement than the "singer in front" way of presentation; it's the task of blending a voice like an instrument. But one thing needs to be made clear: Theo Bleckmann is not trying to imitate an instrument.
"I've never practiced sounding like an instrument. I think you [Theo] can," says Shyu, to which Bleckmann immediately counters, "That gives me the shivers. I never, ever, ever want to sound like another instrument. I refuse to. I want to sound like a voice. I think to do that is a step backwards; it's putting you second to the instrument. I'd rather hear a trombone play like a trombone."
With that established, the two then give their insight into singing with an ensemble. Says Bleckmann: "If you're singing with an instrumental ensemble like John Hollenbeck's band, the syllable is determined by how it best blends with the horns: the differences between singing with the trombones or the trumpets, for example."
Shyu states, "For me, blend is mostly intuitive."
Bleckmann and Shyu have also made strong creative statements while playing alone. In 2010, each artist released an album featuring only themselves and an array of toys and instruments. Bleckmann's I Dwell in Possibility (Winter and Winter, 2010), recorded in the echoy acoustics of a Swiss monastery, is an album that blends sublime austerity, imaginative mystery and effortless virtuosity, utilizing instruments like autoharp, zither, shaker, toy megaphone and Indonesian frog buzzer for Bleckmann's own compositions, along with interpretations of Meredith Monk, Supertramp and James Taylor. Bleckmann has been working with what the AACM called "little instruments" for quite some time, and he has built a concept around it.
"There are two things that I'm using presently: live electronic processingthings like stomp boxes, loops, et ceteraand then things like toys. They're very cheap, mostly dollar-store-type items. The most important part for me in using these things is that the audience is involved in the sounds I'm making. I'm not singing into a laptop and then another sound comes out; I want the audience to experience the change of sound in front of them and see it. That's why I still use antiquated looping devicesbecause you can see clearly what's going on. With the toys, things like megaphones and plungers, it's right there and the audience can easily perceive it. It has a theatrical aspect to it that I find important in my work. I started doing it in the '90s when I bought one of the first loops. The toys came out of work with John Hollenbeck; he had already been working with toys. It's something that I cultivated for my solo performances."
Shyu's solo album, Inner Chapters (Chiuyen Music 2010), is another culmination of sorts, resulting from her research in Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, and China. The finished project is a diverse and almost startling collection of multicultural folksongs and modern jazz tone poems, with tracks such as "Qemaiaqaiam (Women Sing)" that bristle with unfettered, raw energy. The album also features a number of instruments played by Shyu, including piano, a two-stringed, banjo-like moon lute and two-stringed, violin-esque erhu. Shyu's current involvement in solo performance comes out of both musical vision and necessity.
"I've just started to do solo performances as of recently. A few years ago, I was just sharing my research that I had collected for Taiwanese American community centers, and it was all very functional within the community. I was talking about my experiences and drawing in people my age. I was afraid to do that kind of thing in New York as opposed to San Diego. At some point, I wanted to do something more than arrange a folk song. I was actually trying to song-write. The other instruments came out of the limitations of getting a band together. Sometimes it's just easier to do solo. The solo performances also allow me to work on my weaknesses, like singing and improvising one line while playing other contrapuntal lines in each hand on the piano. I'm also writing new music on the instruments. With the moon lute, even in Taiwan, they're just playing it in this very traditional way, but there's so much more than can be done with it, especially with the tuning and strokes. I'm not quite there with the electronics."
To this, Bleckmann wryly comments: "Don't do it. It's such a drag to schlep all that equipment around the world!"
Shyu has also brought her conception to the New York scene in quartet format. Rounded out by alto saxophonist David Binney, drummer Dan Weiss and bassist Thomas Morgan, Shyu's Jade Tongue introduces the aspect of interplay to an already-complex structure of storytelling and improvisation. The quartet performed at the 2011 Winter Jazzfest (with John Hebert subbing on bass) in a singular, multi-layered performance.
Breaking down her process beginning from her first inspiration for improvisational storytelling, Shyu says: "First, I want to talk about my friend Kokayi. He's a great free-stylist and a true rapper. I picked his brain after meeting him through Steve, and he encouraged me to start improvising against a pulse about objects around me, just to practice creating a story. What I've loved to do recently is create harmonic structures, inside of which I can improvise voice-leading lines where a saxophonist might improvise, but I'm attaching text to these lines in an organic way. So at Winter Jazz fest, it was about Chinese laborers in Cuba. I found this text years ago, in my studies, and I decided that it needed to be heard by people other than academics and anthropology students. I would sing a phrase, and Dave Binney would react to it, so it's improvisation but there's structure, harmony, and the rhythm is precise. The drum chant came from the text also."
Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue, from left:
Jen Shyu. Thomas Morgan, Dan Weiss, David Binney
The written narrative entwined into the performance is crucial, but it's not mandatory for the Jade Tongue musicians to be in lockstep with the original intention. "Danny [Weiss] is very deep; there are not a lot of musicians like him on the scene. But I tend not to talk to the band too much about what one song means or the other. I like to have different perspectives on each piece. If they're interested, I'll share with them. Thomas Morgan is always very curious; he's very into languages and taught himself Esperanto, for example."