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Jen Shyu Blends Just About Everything with Zero Grasses

The vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer's latest project includes the themes of racism, sexism, climate change, and family grief

Jen Shyu, Zero Grasses theatrical premiere. (Photo: Mary Kang)
A scene from the 2019 Zero Grasses theatrical premiere. (Photo: Mary Kang)

Jen Shyu is slumped over a desk. As a green spotlight illuminates her long, dark hair and shoulders, a disembodied female voice imitates bird and animal calls. The voice is Shyu’s, who—herself mute—slowly raises her head and opens her eyes as drummer Dan Weiss (sitting in the shadows behind her) flutters brushes over his snare. Her lips remain closed as the animal sounds give way to English words, again in Shyu’s (multitracked) voice: 

“New life. Breath. Wind. Sun. Rebirth. Butterflies. New beginning.”

Now, finally, Shyu sings. “We live on earth.” She looks upward smiling, stretching the word “earth” in both time and pitch. Other Jen Shyus join her in harmony.

Welcome to her new theatrical production, livestreamed from Roulette, a theater in downtown Brooklyn. The vocalist and her band Jade Tongue (which includes trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Thomas Morgan, and violist Mat Maneri along with Weiss—although Adam O’Farrill is subbing for Akinmusire on the livestream) are marking the release of her new album, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses. As it continues, Shyu will rise and dance slowly across the stage to a grand piano as she repeats, “Life is like a stream/It keeps on going.” She’ll change costumes several times. She’ll play the piano, a set of bowl-shaped gongs, the Japanese biwa, and the Taiwanese moon lute. She’ll sing in Japanese, Javanese, and Indonesian. She’ll lie on the stage floor and watch a video she shot from the back of a car driven by her late father, Tsu Pin Shyu.

This is far from your average CD release party.

“I grew up in theater and dance,” Shyu explains in a conversation a few days after the Roulette performance. “These things were such a big part of my life and my training, I had to incorporate them. But it wasn’t about ego or ambition; it was more like, I have to be true to myself. And what I have found is that I have the capacity to do many things, multiple disciplines.”

“It’s everything. Her work is about everything,” adds Alexandru Mihail, the Romanian stage director of Zero Grasses. “And it can be anything: this immense collection of ideas, thoughts, musical pieces, and bits of experience that she has collected.”

Even when she homes in on music, as on the Zero Grasses album, Shyu—whose avant-garde jazz credentials include work with Steve Coleman and Anthony Braxton, among others—uses a vast lens. The album features two full multi-movement pieces, as well as two songs from her previous theatrical work, 2017’s Nine Doors, and two songs that are separate from those works but that help tie the album together into a unified, coherent project of its own.

“It’s amazing,” says Weiss, who has been in Jade Tongue since 2008, of Shyu’s vision. “Not just as a singer, but taking things from different cultures, learning the languages, the instruments, the aspects of the culture, and then bringing that into the music. It’s really been impressive, what she’s done.” Philanthropic organizations that support the arts agree: Shyu has won the Doris Duke Impact Award and been a Doris Duke Artist, a Guggenheim fellow, and a United States Artists fellow.

I tell Mihail that my mission is to distill Jen Shyu down to a few thousand words. He all but laughs in my face. “Good luck,” he says. “That’s supposed to be my role too. Welcome to the journey.”

“I never looked at my ancestry as valuable. People didn’t seem to appreciate it, so why should I?”

On April 3, 2019, Shyu was in Japan, weeks into a five-month fellowship to study both the biwa and the Japanese language. During a lunch break, she found an odd message in her email inbox:

Dear Ms. Shyu: I am a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office in Richmond, Texas. I am sorry to inform you that your father TSU SHYU has passed away. I was asked as a courtesy by your Mother to email you since she did not know how to get a hold of you.

“I thought it was some scam,” she recalls. “It was just so strange. I told my Japanese teachers, and they kind of laughed and were like, ‘What?’” Just to be sure, she called her mother. It was true. A seemingly healthy man who was enjoying retirement, her father had settled in for a pre-dinner nap and never woke up.

Life went on hold. She left Japan without even packing her things and went directly to Texas. She and her brother Linus (who lives in St. Louis) helped their mother through the trauma, then got her into a retirement community; they handled the estate, cleaned the house, and prepared it for sale. Shyu made it back to Japan to collect her belongings but suspended the fellowship. Instead, she moved on to Italy for a teaching and composing residency in Siena. 

Her mother had found her childhood diaries in her dad’s closet. In Italy, she began reading. 

“I discovered and rediscovered many things,” she says. “All about the family, and my childhood, my experiences with racism at an early age, and how my dad was always in the background.”

The diaries included details about family car trips to national parks. John Zorn had already commissioned Zero Grasses as a musical-theatrical piece about the environment and climate change; Shyu’s writing about the parks’ natural features allowed her to enmesh the diaries—i.e., her larger personal and family narrative—into the piece. Along with that came her recent preoccupation with her own fertility, which had obvious familial overtones as well as a play on the “barrenness” evoked by the title Zero Grasses; the end of a long-term relationship; and thoughts about #MeToo and sexism within music and the arts. Zero Grasses had become a sweeping Künstlerroman.

There was little music ready when she presented the outline to Mihail, but “all these things were there,” he says. Though Mihail is an experienced theatrical director, on Shyu’s pieces he’s more like an editor, combing through her ideas and material with a theatrical and narrative eye. “She is always interested to make work that is very personal to her, and together we built a story; she made the songs in line with the story we made. Her journey through life.”

Jen Shyu playing piano. (Photo: Douglas Parsons)
Jen Shyu playing piano. (Photo: Douglas Parsons)

That journey was a heavy one. Shyu was born in Peoria, Illinois, to a mother and father who were immigrants from East Timor and Taiwan, respectively. The family lived in Dunlap, a rural village about 15 miles outside of Peoria. During Shyu’s childhood, its population was around 800, and hers seems to have been the only Asian family. Her schoolmates never let her forget it.

“When I won the spelling bee in sixth grade, everyone booed,” she recalls. “I was teacher’s pet, so maybe they just resented me, but there was one girl who said, ‘You might be really good at piano and ballet, but you’ll always be Chinese.’” In another incident (which appears in the lyrics of Zero Grasses), she sold a younger boy a candy bar, and he called her a “chink.” What friends she had were the town’s three Black children and a girl from Croatia. “We were a group: the outsiders. The people of color.”

Ironically, growing up, she had little relationship to her family’s roots, because her parents were anxious for her and her brother to become “American.” They didn’t speak Mandarin at home or engage in cultural practices beyond annual Chinese New Year parties. Instead, performing arts became her identity. She began ballet at five; by eight she was playing both piano and violin, joining the Central Illinois Youth Symphony in Peoria. As a teenager, she sang and acted in community theater. “My confidence came from doing these productions and activities outside of school,” she says. “I had hope. I had ambition: Maybe one day I could be Miss Saigon!” She matriculated at Stanford University, where she studied theater and opera.

Shyu remained in the San Francisco Bay Area after graduating from Stanford in 2000. Though still aspiring to opera, she was increasingly infatuated with jazz; she met saxophonist Francis Wong and pianist Jon Jang, two artists at the center of an Asian-American improvised-music community, which caused a sea change in her perspective.

“Jen was just out of college and trying to be a jazz singer in a more classic mode,” Wong says. “But our thing was that we as Asian Americans should express who we are through our music. So she started singing songs from her parents’ backgrounds, and rendering them within her own musical expression. That was very exciting to us: her beginning to tell her own story about who she is, who her parents are, and incorporating that into original works. Having something to say beyond interpreting the standards.”

“They really encouraged me to look into what my ancestry offered me, and to consider where my parents came from as inspiration,” Shyu says. “I never looked at those things as valuable. People didn’t seem to appreciate it, so why should I? But their mentorship allowed me to discover that material. And they were jazz musicians—who looked like me!”

Shyu recorded her first album, 2002’s For Now, with Wong and other members of the community. Soon afterward she became acquainted with one of its alumni, pianist Vijay Iyer—still a close friend and colleague—and, through him, saxophonist Steve Coleman. Shyu began singing with Coleman’s band Five Elements; in so doing, she fulfilled a lifelong dream, moving across the country to New York.

Though Shyu is now estranged from Coleman, she credits him as a mentor. “Definitely a huge influence,” she says. “He centered me in terms of going for what I really wanted to leave behind and do here in this life. He was the first person to clarify that for me.” 

Initially, his influence was more musical, as can be heard on her 2008 album Jade Tongue. “In the beginning, she had some more difficult, written-out material,” says Weiss, who played on the album. “A lot more intricate stuff, rhythmically and form-wise.”

Mindful of what she’d learned from Wong, Shyu decided in 2011 to immerse herself in southern and southeastern Asian traditions. She spent the next seven years living in Indonesia, South Korea, East Timor, China, and Taiwan. It completely transformed the music she made, as on 2015’s Sounds and Cries of the World and 2017’s Song of Silver Geese—the latter the basis of the theatrical production Nine Doors. (Her first production, the solo opera Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, premiered in 2014.)

“It’s more realized,” Weiss says. “She has so many different elements there now: the multi- instruments, the multimedia. It’s more open and a lot more improvisational.” 

Music was not her only focus: She also soaked in the cultures and, most astonishingly, the languages. As of 2021, Shyu speaks 10 languages … and she’s working on three more.

“She’s so thorough with everything that she does,” says her friend, bassist Linda Oh. “She does it with pure dedication and passion. Flying overseas and spending months at a time in one place, learning the language and spending time with the people—she’s just a huge inspiration.”

Jen Shyu at the Roulette album release show. (Photo: Wolf Daniel/courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)
Jen Shyu at the Roulette album release show. (Photo: Wolf Daniel/courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

A few months after Zero Grasses’ 2019 theatrical premiere at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, COVID-19 struck. The deadly disease was a nightmare, the attendant lockdowns paralyzing. Then came racial unrest following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, followed by a spate of violence against Asian Americans. It was too much for an artist of Shyu’s scope to ignore.

Before schools went to remote learning, Shyu had begun work on a commission for choral students at New York’s William Alexander Middle School. The kids had chosen to write about two topics—springtime and living—then shaped their words into lyrics for one movement of the piece. After lockdown, she asked them to write again, about quarantine.

“I saw a lot of common themes,” she says. “‘I took everything for granted’ was a big one; ‘cooped up in this small cage, you can’t go out’ was another common one. So I took the most poetic of those expressions, reordered them, and I might have added one or two lines to make a line better, but it’s really their words, which I think is amazing. You can hear their reflections on quarantine, and their angst, in the second, third, and fourth movements.” The four-part “Living’s a Gift” constitutes the second full-length piece on the album.

Shyu wrote a new song, “Lament for Breonna Taylor,” based on interviews with the mother of the woman killed by police officers in her Louisville, Kentucky home in March 2020. She and Jade Tongue also re-recorded three older songs. “The Human Color,” from Jade Tongue, was a rumination on race; “A Cure for the Heart’s Longing” and “Display Under the Moon” came from Nine Doors, which had been based on the tragic death of her friend, the Javanese performer Sri Joko Raharjo, and his family. (Raharjo wrote the lyrics to “A Cure for the Heart’s Longing.”)

Put together with Zero Grasses, these pieces made a new, longer musical work that was more than the sum of its parts. “I added the subtitle Ritual for the Losses as a reflection of what we experienced in the last year,” Shyu says. “The loss. My personal losses, but also the many lives we lost—and the kids, they lost a part of their childhood, at such a formative time! I thought people could relate.”

The album wasn’t created with the intent of making a larger theatrical piece from it—but neither could one expect Shyu to promote its release with a simple, conventional concert, especially when live audiences are still prohibited.

“Jen’s always been a person who’s interested in creativity not from just one lens,” says her friend, percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, who has often collaborated with Shyu onstage. “I understand it because I’m the exact same way—we both share so many interests and ideas. When you’re performing with Jen, there’s an element that’s way beyond the idea of just presenting a concert.”

This, says Mihail, is an organic part of her process. “We worked with designers to conceive the show,” he explains, “then Jen finds ways to adapt and evolve it, developing it more by herself as the one-person orchestra that she is. if you know Jen, you know that she is this river of enthusiasm, and she’s very brave. She has the courage to try anything. I help give it form, but it’s Jen’s show and she makes changes that I don’t know about.”

For Shyu, it’s just another aspect of being true to herself. “I tell my students this: Always take what I say with a grain of salt,” she says. “What I think, and what I advise someone to do, may not be what’s right for them even if I have the best of intentions. I don’t think that you have to limit yourself based on someone else’s standards; it’s really based on your own. So be skeptical of advice that anyone gives you. You just have to know yourself.” 

Learn more about Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses on Amazon! Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.