“It all began when my parents got my brother and me a Steinway M when I was six years old. The hours I have spent––not just practicing it, but sleeping and dreaming under it as a child as an imaginary landscape in my secret music and dance improvisations––have gathered into the feeling of devotion I have for the Steinways I now play for audiences around the world. To play a Steinway is a magical return home to the very essence of why I became a musician in the first place, and why I never questioned that I would be anything else in this life.”
Jen Shyu is a groundbreaking, multilingual vocalist, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, dancer, 2019 United States Artists Fellow, 2016 Doris Duke Artist, and was voted 2017 Downbeat Critics Poll Rising Star Female Vocalist. Born in Peoria, Illinois, to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrant parents, Shyu is widely regarded for her virtuosic singing and riveting stage presence, carving out her own beyond-category space in the art world. She has performed with or sung the music of such musical innovators as Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Bobby Previte, Chris Potter, Michael Formanek and David Binney. Shyu has performed her own music on prestigious world stages such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rubin Museum of Art, Ringling International Arts Festival, Asia Society, Roulette, Blue Note, Bimhuis, Salihara Theater, National Gugak Center, National Theater of Korea and at festivals worldwide.
A Stanford University graduate in opera with classical violin and ballet training, she has studied traditional music and dance in Cuba, Taiwan, Brazil, China, South Korea, East Timor and Indonesia, conducting extensive research which culminated in her 2014 stage production Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, directed by renowned Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho. Shyu has won commissions and support from Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, MAP Fund, US-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship from Japan-US Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts, Jerome Foundation, Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works, New Music USA, Jazz Gallery, and Roulette, as well as fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, Hermitage Artist Retreat, Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Korean Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Tourism.
Shyu has produced seven albums as a leader, including the first female-led and vocalist-led album Pi Recordings has released, Synastry (Pi 2011), with co-bandleader and bassist Mark Dresser. Her critically acclaimed Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi 2015) landed on many best-of-2015 lists, including those of The New York Times, The Nation, and NPR. Her latest album Song of Silver Geese (Pi 2017) is receiving rave reviews and was also included on The New York Times’ Best Albums of 2017.
Even with the acclaim she has received for her recordings, Shyu is just as renowned for her dynamic performances. Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times that her concerts are "the most arresting performances I’ve seen over the past five years. It’s not just the meticulous preparation of the work and the range of its reference, but its flexibility: She seems open, instinctual, almost fearless." Her duo performance with Tyshawn Sorey was among The New York Times’ Best Live Jazz Performances of 2017. Larry Blumenfeld wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “her voice, a wonder of technical control and unrestrained emotion, tells a story dotted with well-researched facts and wild poetic allusions. She claims both as her truths.”
Currently based in New York City, Shyu is on the Artistic Advisory Council of Roulette Intermedium and is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, which released its Code of Conduct for the Performing Arts on May 1, 2018. She premiered her latest solo work Nine Doors at National Sawdust June 29, 2017, kicking off a 50-state U.S. tour of “Songs of Our World Now / Songs Everyone Writes Now (SOWN/SEWN),” planting seeds of creativity and threading communities together through art and cultural exchange.
Photos by Douglas Parsons (cover photo) and Caterina Di Perri