Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann: Breaking the Song Barrier
Between creative artists like Bobby McFerrin, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks and Cassandra Wilson, the future of jazz voice is secure in its professionals, but in regards to students, there may be a gap in the sort of creative fervor that drove the aformentioned artists. Despite the continued expansion of jazz vocal programs, there hasn't been an influx of great vocalists onto the scene, like there has been with young saxophonists or pianists.
Theo Bleckmann with trumpeter Avishai Cohen
This may be partly due to the prevailing attitude, as Bleckmann observes: "I think jazz voice has become so tame and afraid. I just want to shake some people up sometimes. We've become so set in our ways: 'We're going to do these standards, then one Wayne Shorter tune, a Bossa, a vocalese et cetera, et cetera.' I encourage my students to listen to all kinds of music: new music, heavy metal, folk music, Korean music, whateverto not get stuck in just singing jazz. Just because I'm teaching at Manhattan School of Music doesn't mean you have to be a bebop singer. It's even narrow within that field."
Shyu echoes these concerns: "Categorization can be a dangerous thing. We have to be careful about it as educators and try to destroy those as much as possible. If students are coming to us, that means they're listening, but we have to keep encouraging them to listen."
In Bleckmann's view, the talent may be there, but the power of the forbearers is missing. "I hear a lot of female students in the auditions who want to sing like little girls. They may not even want to, but they don't know how to do it differently. I think there's something in our culture, and in jazz, where the women have to be very little and light. When I think back to Carmen McRae or Betty Carter, these were big, sweaty women. They were not afraid to really put it outespecially the photos you see of Ella just sweating and giving it her all. They were not afraid to be adults. We're in a state where a lot of the female vocalists are very powerless, and if they are powerful, they have to be sexy about it. For every person that comes to Jen or myself, there are a hundred people who have never even heard of Betty Carter. Those people might never have access to that."
There is a bit of an uplifting trend occurring, however. At the 2011 Grammy Awards, vocalist/bassist Esperanza Spalding won the award for Best New Artist, beating out superstars like Justin Bieber and Drake. Prior to this honor, Spalding had just released her album Chamber Music Society (Concord, 2011), which prominently features wordless vocalisms, whereas her previous release had been very lyric oriented. For Bleckmann and Shyu, the effort is appreciated, but the timing is coincidental at best.
"First of all, I love Esperanza and Chamber Music Society," says Bleckmann. "I was very happy to see her even nominated." On the decidedly less commercial nature of the record, he comments, "When you're trying to make something commercial, it usually fails. When you're doing your own music, it just falls into place. You don't even think about how it's going to be perceived. The fact that people want to hear something different and not the same formulait's very encouraging. It's a very beautiful record, very fine, very lush. That's maybe telling that people aren't looking just for the typical singer that fronts the band."
Shyu adds, "It was kind of coup. The face just changed a little bit. But again, I think if you're doing any pursuit to make money, it's going to suffer."
Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann are continuing to push the boundaries of repertoire, sound and musical conception. In the atmosphere of new jazz and creative music, there is no shortage of want or need to include as many sounds, sights and attitudes as possible. As long as jazz stretches itself to find continuous inspiration, and as long as there are vocalists like Bleckmann and Shyu willing to be participants, this idiom will have a longstanding place in jazz culture. As Shyu puts it, "It is only the mind that limits a person, not the instrument."
Theo Bleckmann, I Dwell in Possibility (Winter and Winter, 2010)
Jen Shyu with Steve Coleman, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010)
Jen Shyu, Inner Chapters (Chiuyen Music, 2010)
Jen Shyu with Positive Catastrophe, Garabatos Volume One (Cuneiform Records, 2009)
Theo Bleckmann with John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside, 2009)
Jen Shyu with Miles Okazaki, Generations (Sunnyside Records, 2009)
Theo Bleckmann and Kneebody, Twelve Songs by Charles Ives (Winter and Winter, 2009)
Theo Bleckmann with Refuge Trio, Refuge Trio (Winter and Winter, 2009)
Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue, Jade Tongue (Chiuyen Music, 2008)
Theo Bleckmann / Ben Monder, At Night (Songlines, 2007)
Jen Shyu with Steve Coleman & Five Elements, Weaving Symbolics (Label Bleu, 2006)
Theo Bleckmann with Ben Monder, Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005)
Jen Shyu with Steve Coleman & Five Elements, Lucidarium (Label Bleu, 2005)
Theo Bleckmann with Ben Monder, Excavation (Sunnyside, 2000)