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Singer Blurs The Lines Between East And West On 'Sounds And Cries Of the World'


Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of a new album by singer Jen Shyu. She was born in Illinois and studied classical voice and performed jazz standards coming up. She sung in saxophonist Steve Coleman's bands and recorded in a duo with bass player Mark Dresser. Jen Shyu has also spent years in East Asia studying regional musics, languages and literature. Kevin says that research that research echoes through her own music.


JEN SHYU: (Singing) The sun had set. And we stood in silence, waving goodbye for the first and last time. Dragon in part and shining through, climbed up the mountain, back to life divine. And I, climbing down, remembering the fire...

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jen Shyu, from her strangely beautiful new album with her band Jade Tongue. It's called "Sounds & Cries Of The World," as if it's some ambitious global anthology. But Shyu's music is intensely personal. Nothing sounds quite like it, even as it reveals her long immersion in musics of Taiwan and East Timor, where her folks are from, and related studies in Korea and Indonesia.


SHYU: (Singing in foreign language).

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu learned old songs from the elders of several cultures as part of her immersion method, but the melodies she sings are almost all hers. The texts are her own or are drawn from East Asian poetry or even from a harrowing passage in East Timor's truth and reconciliation report. She says some of these songs stem from strange, sometimes scary dreams she had while living in East Timor.

The music catches the eerie, oozy fluidity of a dream, where relationships are ever-immutable, and the ground may slip beneath your feet. Her title, "Bloom's Mouth Rushed In" isn't a James Joyce reference, but I like that glancing connection to his slippery narratives.


SHYU: (Singing) Ah, a fear appeared like a flower in my hand. A fear appeared beautiful with petals white and center yellow, a flower.

WHITEHEAD: This is challenging material for the interpreter, but Jen Shyu surrounds herself with improvisers who tune right in. Viola player Mat Maneri hears and echoes her microtonal inflections. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's tone is voice-like to begin with, and it's thrilling when voice and horn converge. Bassist Thomas Morgan isn't afraid of open space but won't leave you hanging. And Dan Weiss's drumming is informed by his deep study of Asian musics.


SHYU: (Singing) Sharing the smell of tears, sorrowful grief. At the edge of the garden, searching for the heaven...

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu also on a Taiwanese lute there. Her music can parallel modernized versions of East Asian traditional musics, like Indonesia's Jaipongan. But steeped in the old ways, as her singing and sometimes mythic lyrics are, in the end, she brings all that baggage back home. Her vibrato is more American than East Asian. Those huge, upward leaps she makes owe something to traditional melodic patterns but also to her love of Joni Mitchell.


SHYU: (Singing) With his images haunting me and my transformation by his etched reflection...

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu's music operates in some unpatrolled border zone, blurring lines between folk song and art song, the traditional and the avant-garde, Western and Eastern, between waking consciousness and dream logic. Her album, "Songs & Cries Of The World" is no drive-by encounter between musical cultures, no cherry picking of exotic licks. This is research and experience, absorbed and reimagined.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Sounds & Cries Of The World" by singer Jen Shyu and her band Jade Tongue.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Chef Michael Solomonov talks about creating modern Israeli cuisine for Americans and describes what it was like before he was sober, when he was running his restaurant while addicted to drugs. He co-founded the Philadelphia restaurant Zahav and has a new cookbook called, "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Out technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.

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