Yuhan Su’s Liberation Suite

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“I think a lot of people think this still sounds like me, but they’ll also know it’s something different,” says Yuhan Su about her latest recording. “I am proud of that.”

(Photo: Te Fan Wang)

In 2019, Taiwan-born vibraphonist Yuhan Su needed a break from New York City.

Born in the small, rural city of Miaoli, Taiwan, Su first moved to the United States to study jazz at Berklee College of Music in 2008, after earning her master’s degree in classical percussion in Tai Pei. Su first moved to New York in 2011, after graduating Berklee with a degree in jazz vibraphone performance.

For years now, Su has had a self-described good life in Brooklyn, where she lives close to Bar Bayeux, a cozy spot with live jazz and a hangout for musicians in the neighborhood. Still, she finds she often needs time away from the city to slow down and create.

“It never stops [here], you always have to [be at] your full speed,” Su said. “[There are] a lot of inspiring people here, they’re always doing something. So, you [are] kind of in this loop, which I think is great. You’re always seeing something new, something that inspires you, but after a while, you know, you need a break.”

Fortunately, she was accepted to participate in the Cité Internationale des Arts residency in Paris in 2019. The six-month assignment allowed Su to immerse herself in her music as well as the culture of Paris, and led to Liberated Gesture, her most recent release on Sunnyside.

“[The residency was] almost surreal, like you basically don’t need to worry about anything. I just focused on creating,” Su noted. “And I visited a lot of [art] exhibitions and [saw] performances.”

At the time, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art was showcasing a retrospective of work by Hans Hartung, a German-French painter known for his striking, abstract style. Su found the exhibit “thrilling.” She loved his bold, dramatic style and how she was able to see how his style evolved over his lifetime.

“It [was] a great reminder, for myself at the time, to trust the process of creating,” said Su. “Sometimes you question yourself and your work a little bit. You feel like ‘Is this good or bad?’ But it’s a process; you write something and then that can lead to something else.”

Shortly after visiting that exhibit, she wrote a suite of compositions that would become the first three finished songs for Liberated Gesture: the spacious, minimal “Liberated Gesture II–Arc”; the percussive, energetic “Liberated Gesture III–Tightrope Walk”; and “Liberated Gesture IV–Hartung’s Light,” which blends the qualities of the two previous parts.

Sonically interpreting other art forms, particularly visual art and literature, is something Su said is exciting, and something she strived to do more of on Liberated Gesture. Along with drawing inspiration from Hartung, She wrote the frenetic “Hassan’s Fashion Magazine” after attending a photography exhibit in Paris that explored traditional Moroccan fashion, and “Didion” after reading Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking, which chronicles how the author dealt with the deaths of her husband and daughter.

“She’s so honest and brave to just talk about that, and it [inspired] very strong expression [in] me,” said Su. “I feel [that] all art works, they kind of they express some kind of energy, or power, and then we receive and we interpret that in different ways, right? So, we have our version and then I can also [change] that into something else. This kind of transformation — that’s what I like.”

Su also intentionally expanded her improvisational palette and leaned into the avant-garde on this record. She describes her previous records, including her last record on Sunnyside, as modern jazz in a purer sense, informed by a more traditional jazz language: extended harmonies, approach tones and scales. That sound is still present on Liberated Gesture, but this project also highlights Su stretching herself using polyrhythm, atonalism and melodic elements like intervals, shapes and sounds.

According to Su, this language felt more conducive to the overarching concept she was going for on Liberated Gesture: “I wanted to find the freedom within the given limitations. For example, there are different mixed meters, there are some atonal harmonies, and then different elements in the compositions. So, then, how you [create with] maximum freedom [and] fly through?”

Su’s goal was to learn how to flow through a complex composition without feeling limited in expression, and the bandmembers she chose for the record helped her learn how to do that.

Particularly, she chose pianist Matt Mitchell as well as drummer Dan Weiss. Mitchell and Weiss are mainstays in the New York avant-garde jazz scene and musicians she’d long admired.

“They are like my idols,” said Su. “I was always a big fan, and I went to their shows. I invited them to play a show with me. And I was just so shocked while I was actually playing. The way they play, it’s so flexible, and so the music really flows while they are playing super-difficult things so precisely.”

Liberated Gesture also features Su’s long-time friend, eclectic bassist Marty Kenney, as well as flutist/alto saxophonist/composer Caroline Davis, who also recites a poem written by Su on the track “She Goes Into A Silent War.” Su wrote the subversive poem for women who are brave enough to step outside of what’s culturally expected of them.

Four years since putting the piece together in her room by the Seine, Liberated Gesture is out and Su will begin touring through Europe, and playing a few dates in New York and Los Angeles, before the end of the year. The pandemic slowed the release process, so Su is relieved and elated to finally share this music that feels in step with where she is now and the direction she plans to explore in the future.

“I really made something different from my previous musical works,” she said. “I think a lot of people think this still sounds like me, but they’ll also know it’s something different. I am proud of that.” DB



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