Yuhan Su: Good Vibes
Given the varied background of the musicians Su assembled to record Flying Alone, one might imagine a sort of world-jazz fusion, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, a distinctive and consistent style of contemporary jazz emerges in Su's work, one that harnesses the musicians to Su's vision without stifling their individual creativity. The strength of the music on Flying Alone lies not only in Su's evident writing strengths but also in her leadership. "There are a lot of great musicians at Berklee," says Su, "but I picked the musicians on this album because I like their particular sound. I heard their sound when I wrote the music, so I wrote for them."
It hasn't been possible, however, to keep all these musicians together as a working band. "Some of them are back home or study in different cities now, so I'm trying to mix it up with new musicians," explains Su. "From the album, the guitarist and the drummer are the musicians I work the most with. I do play a lot in a trio. I was working in a trio with Delgado and Gopinath and without bass for a while. That was a fun experiment. There was a lot of freedom."
On Flying Alone, Su plays malletkat and vibraphone and sings on a couple of numbers. As she explains, she was playing different musical instruments from an early age. "I started out on piano as a child, and later when I studied percussion I also learned how to play drums, but mostly marimba. But when I played the vibraphone, I somehow felt very comfortable. I was just attracted to the sound of the vibraphone."
Su describes her listening habits while she grew up in Taiwan as diverse, encompassing pop as well as classical music. A bout of tendonitis during her high-school years forced Su to take a hiatus from percussion and change her major to composition. "The teachers introduced me to composers like Debussy, Ravel and Bartok. Listening to Ravel's string quartet compositions had a big impact on me. I'm very attracted by the unique colors and textures of that music."
Su also had a lot of exposure to various types of folk music. "In Taiwan, there are a lot of different ethnic groups, and I'm from the Hakka, so from my early childhood I heard a lot of folk music. That's part of my tradition." Playing the vibraphone led Su to check out jazz vibraphone players. One concert in particular would have a profound effect on her. "I remember Gary Burton and Chick Corea were touring Taiwan at this time, and I was, like, 'Wow! I really want to learn how to play like that.' Then I started to listen to Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton and Bobby Hutcherson."
Su's pursuit of records of vibraphone players was a personal crusade. "At the Conservatory of the Arts at university, they didn't have that much information about jazz," says Su. "There was actually no official school or jazz program in Taiwan at that time, so I was just going to libraries to get the albums and find out by myself."
There are, as Su has found out, a lot of talented vibraphone players out there, certainly more than there were a couple of decades ago. "Yes, there seem to be more and more, and playing in different styles," Su agrees. Of contemporary vibraphone players, Su mentions Joe Locke, Dave Samuels and Ed Saindon as ones she particularly admires.
Samuels and Saindon both taught Su at Berklee, and she is quick to praise them. "Compositionally speaking, Dave Samuels, my vibraphone teacher, was really important for me. He was my mentor," acknowledges Su. "He taught me how to connect my classical experience to jazz, through Bach, which was really exciting and inspiring. He showed that when composing it's not necessary to start from a blank pageif you start with something you are familiar with or you really like, from there you can develop yourself. That really inspired me. I developed my jazz vocabulary a lot as well as my composing. It was a lot of fun."