Vibraphonist Yuhan Su plays with a terse, riff-driven sensibility, a persistent restlessness and a frequently wry sense of humor. Her latest album, City Animals – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a study in contrasts: urban vs. rural, action vs. stillness, agitation vs. contentment. Su has done a lot of work with dance companies in recent years, so it’s no surprise that there’s an especially lithe quality to a lot of the tunes here. Unlike a lot of vibraphonists, she likes to hang out in the midrange rather than working a bell-like attack way up the scale. She’s playing the Cell Theatre on Jan 19 at 8 PM with her quintet; cover is $15.
The album’s first track, El Coche Se Murio, was inspired by an untimely breakdown on a Spanish highway, four hours from a gig. There’s a coy solo vibraphone intro where the vehicle loses it, an insistent I-can’t-believe-this-happened passage, bustling Alex LoRe alto sax against balmy Matt Holman trumpet, a scampering Su solo and then what seems to be disaster averted.
Sax and trumpet flutter uneasily against each other in Viaje, as Su leads the rhythm section – bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – with a lingering unease as the segments coalesce in turn, yet never fully resolve. Immigration and similar big journeys are like that.
The surreallistically titled Feet Dance has a steady, almost stalking pulse underpinning bright unison playing and sax-trumpet harmonies. As is frequently the case in Su’s music, those harmonies remain a tantalizing hair away from any kind of traditional chromatic scale, raising the unease factor.
Poncho Song, a jazz waltz, is similar but more wistful, with an expansively stairstepping vibraphone solo at the center and a tasty, nebulous outro that’s over too soon. The album’s title track contrasts fluttery urban bustle with lustrous, lingering phrases, Holman and LoRe bobbing and weaving.
Kuafu, the album’s centerpiece, is a triptych inspired by a Chinese myth about a titan of sorts hell-bent on running down and catching the sun. The first section has Su’s restless resonance paired against LoRe’s animated sax, the rhythm section entering with the hint of a second-line shuffle. Then it’s Su’s turn to go in a carefree direction as the horns converge.
The second part, Starry, Starry Night is the high point of the record, and also its most vividly melodic moment, a bittersweet anthem that diverges to a starry/dancing vibes-sax dichotomy and then a moody rondo. The metrically tricky coda has some irresistibly funny, over-the-top moments from Ellman-Bell and jaunty Indian allusions from LoRe.
The languid ballad Tutu & D – inspired by The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – has cleverly spacious counterpoint between all the instruments and an expansive, lyrical Holman solo. The album’s final number, Party 2AM is more genteel and conversational than the title would imply. Refreshingly distinctive, purposeful stuff from someone who’s really found a sound of her own.