Review: Jen Shyu

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

It's hard to imagine a stronger opener for Jen Shyu's sophomore release, Jade Tongue, than "Mother Cow's Companion," one of three traditional folk songs on the disc. Shyu sings it alone, hinting at blues vibrato as she weaves microtonal melodies in a Taiwanese dialect. "Chapter 33," with Mandarin text from the Tao Te Ching, follows in a loosely funky vein, the first of several deftly arranged, passionately realized compositions for six instruments and voice.

As the vocalist in Steve Coleman's experimental funk-world-jazz band, Five Elements, Shyu has contended with rhythmic innovation and improvisational boldness for some time. On Jade Tongue she crafts a personal synthesis, bringing tight, jazz-informed interplay to bear on themes of Asian-American diaspora. The program is a bit long (nearly 80 minutes), with a three-part historical suite, "The Chinese-Cuban Question," at the center, plus two pieces from Lee-gendary, a theater collaboration involving Shyu and actor Soomi Kim.

From the exacting unisons of "Soomi Line" and "Eye[I] Inside" to the balladic motion of "The Human Color" and "Wayward Son," the music tests the formidable talents of players like altoist David Binney, trumpeter Shane Endsley and drummer Dan Weiss. Shyu matches their virtuosity and sings with palpable nerve, her enunciation of Chinese an outflow of unpredictable timbres. While English-language testimonies of abuses from 1876 make for clunky lyrics in "The Chinese-Cuban Question," the accounts add up to a harrowing and effective whole. It's a remarkable achievement, with rich theatrical implications for the concert setting.

Jen Shyu plays the Stone Sat 24 and Wed 28.

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Jade Tongue (self-released; available through