Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.
The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.
The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.
Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:
I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.
Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.
Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center
Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this.