Jen Shyu + Mark Dresser: Synastry

There have been vocal-and-bass albums, but none have sounded like this. Jen Shyu has been heard most prominently as a member of Steve Coleman and Five Elements, where her voice is integrated into the music with the horns. In that setting and this one, Shyu truly uses her voice like an instrumentalist, without ever resorting to vocal gymnastics that could turn the performance into abrasive theatrics or novelty. Mark Dresser’s bass has of course anchored work by Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne and many performances as a leader or co-leader.

The music on Synastry includes everything from steady 4/4 to slow, drawn-out tone poems. The authority Dresser brings to his instrument makes it easy to forget about this spare instrumental setting. His bowing sounds especially sharp and penetrating. Part of the intrigue with Shyu can be attributed to her vocalese, if that term is even appropriate for her work. She draws on phonemes from several different languages, which to the untrained ear adds to the complexity of her voice-as-instrument approach. It’s not scat, nor does it always sound like foreign-language lyrics. When she does sing in English, as she does on four tracks, it almost diminishes the intrigue, since the focus is back on the text, which she often stretches out. Sometimes her upper-register forays can get excessive, but often her intervallic leaps tug on the ear and reward a deep listen to this challenging set.