Shyu, Tonooka, Jeanty Renew Improv-Forged Bond at Jazz Gallery


Sumi Tonooka (left) and Jen Shyu perform at the Jazz Gallery on Nov. 5.

(Photo: Christopher Pelham)

When Jen Shyu, Sumi Tonooka and Val Jeanty got together in February for a freely improvised set at the Stone, they connected sonically and spiritually. So it was no surprise that when the trio joined forces again, as they did at the Jazz Gallery in New York on Nov. 5, they renewed their bond without missing a beat.

In fact, it was arguably stronger. Working off the theme “When The Ancestors Speak” and buoyed by the sense of discipline that adherence to a theme implies, they seemed less tentative in the proffering of their individual ideas — and freer to exploit the possibilities of collective enterprise.

The result was a fully realized spectral dreamscape — one conjured by the convergence of disembodied voices, dissonant harmonies and dance-like moves that conveyed the traumas of lives uprooted, for immigrants and their descendants alike.

In shedding light on those traumas, the program, presented by the Center for Remembering & Sharing, found a vehicle in a cache of letters that Shyu — vocalist, instrumentalist and the program’s central theatrical figure — had obtained from the son of an uncle to whom her conflicted father, now deceased, had written after he immigrated to the United States from his native Taiwan.

In the letters, Shyu’s father quoted ancient Chinese poetry amid his own commentary as he traced his life in America, starting as a student at Syracuse University. The content revealed the pain of an immigrant separating from his homeland — pain that Shyu filtered through her second-generation sensibility.

Luxuriating in the letters’ lyricism, she found her expression in searing but spare soprano offerings that pointedly lacked melodrama — and were all the more persuasive for it. Her delivery resting on minute gestures of voice and modest ones of body, she sang and swayed to the distant sound of gently rushing water, serving up the haunting words of her father’s chosen poem: “Those tears, flowing with the river, turning back, hesitant to leave.”

Like Shyu, Tonooka found power in restraint. Seated upright at the piano, she seemed the personification of yogic detachment, barely acknowledging the piped-in sounds of her recorded words and those of her deceased mother, a proud but psychologically wounded Japanese-American who had been interned as a teenager in a World War II-era camp. This was territory Tonooka had mined before, notably in her mid-1980s work Out Of The Silence. In it, she addressed her mother’s camp experience in a suite that, in muted tones, combined spoken word and jazz with classical techniques of both the East and West.

Her pianistic contributions to the Nov. 5 performance continued in that vein. Rather than channeling the pain of her ancestors with overtly dramatic flourishes, she dwelled in languid impressionism. Even when she strayed into bluesy territory, she disdained the comforts of easy tonality for an abstraction that suggested the need to remain at a healthy remove from what befell her mother.

Tonooka and Shyu last collaborated on a project explicitly drawing on their personal histories in February. The project, “In The Green Room,” was a quartet affair, also featuring drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Linda May Han Oh, at the Asia Society. There, as at the Jazz Gallery performance, Tonooka’s approach fit so neatly within Shyu’s idiosyncratic presentation — which, in addition to song and dance, variously included potent turns on instruments like the Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa and Korean gayageum — that a shared aesthetic sense seemed to cross over into shared consciousness. But having Jeanty as a foil added other cultural and generational dimensions to the mix.

Unlike Shyu and Tonooka, Jeanty herself was an immigrant, having left embattled Haiti to pursue her career in New York. Among the three musicians, it was she for whom the immigration experience was most immediate. And it was she who was charged with giving the Nov. 5 show a kind of framework. Digging into her considerable bag of electronic tricks, she produced a raft of sounds that vividly evoked the means and methods of migratory environments in evolutionary sequence, from the rivers and forests of unspoiled nature to the trains, buses and other stuff of modern industrial life.

Judiciously deploying digital hand percussion, she also fashioned a variety of beats based on Haitian ritual, many of which echoed with a quality so otherworldly that they might have summoned the spirits of her homeland. Was she just a bit homesick? It was to remain an open question. But, as the only first-generation immigrant among the three musicians, she surely was the one for whom the pain of leaving was a first-hand fact. DB

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