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Yuhan Su: Good Vibes

Ian Patterson By

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Everybody loves the romance of a comeback: the phoenix-like rise from adversity, long-term exile, obscurity or defeat. Think of US President Abraham Lincoln's travails, boxer George Foreman's regaining the World Heavyweight title at the age of 45, actor Sean Connery's return as Bond, David Bowie's eternal reinvention or, indeed, the peculiar cycles of fashion that have brought back platform boots once more. In jazz terms, saxophonist Charles Lloyd's return from semi-retirement in the 1980s is mythologized, but it surely can't beat bassist Henry Grimes' musical resurrection in the early 2000s after over 30 years of obscurity.

Some comebacks are greeted with loud fanfare, while others go unheralded until much later. One instrument that seems to be making a comeback in jazz is the vibraphone, that most ethereal of percussion instruments. In truth, it has never really gone away, but there may be more great vibraphone players making their way in jazz today than in any other era of the music.

One notable new voice on vibraphone is Taiwanese musician Yuhan Su. Su has made America her home since moving to Boston in 2008 to study at Berklee. Since then, she has worked the East Coast and joined saxophonist Greg Osby's label Inner Circle Music, and she leads her own trio and quintet formations, the latter of which features Osby. Su's debut release as leader, Flying Alone (Inner Circle Music, 2013), has come out to widespread approval. In the April edition of DownBeat, Brad Farberman wrote of Su's "intelligence, sensitivity and a haunting sense of tenderness." To add to that list is Su's distinctive compositional voice and her improvisational skills—she is, so to speak, the finished article. Su is a rising star and one we're likely to hear a lot more of.

Judging from the title of Su's debut recording, one might be forgiven for thinking hers is a solo album, but Su surrounded herself with fellow Berklee musicians to form a genuinely tight and intuitive septet. The title, as Su explains, has more to do with venturing from Taiwan to America. "It was a big move for me to move to a different culture. I was by myself and far from my old friends." The move, as daunting as it may have been, has worked out well for the young musician. "I've gained a lot of inspiration from other musicians since I came to Boston," says Su. "They have really given me a lot, so it's been a great journey."

A certain degree of culture shock was inevitable in Su's moving from Taiwan to America, and the way in which culture shock manifests itself is not something that natives can always imagine or relate to. Su recalls an incident shortly after her arrival that sheds some light on just how big a move it can be, in some ways, for a young Taiwanese to relocate to America."During my first week at Berklee, I was sitting in the second row of the classroom, and the people in the row in front of me all had different hair styles," Su recalls, laughing. "There were people from everywhere, and they all looked so different. I think people here are really unique and try to say what they believe, and that's really different from my experience in Taiwan. People here are freer to express how they feel."

Shocking perhaps but liberating, too, which may be what drew Su to jazz in the first place. "Yes, definitely," agrees Su. "I simply love jazz. It totally opens my mind and sort of sets me free. I'm fascinated by how far and wild it can go." Studying at Berklee and playing with top musicians in Boston and New York has been an edifying experience for Su. "Learning more about and going deeper into improvisation, I can feel all my musical experiences gradually coming together. Initially, I felt like I had a lot of fragments all over the place, but now I can start to build the architecture."

All the compositions on Flying Alone are Su originals—a bold move for a debut recording and reasonably rare among young musicians who often feel compelled to include a few jazz standards to prove, as it were, their jazz credentials. Su never thought about going down that road for a minute. "No, I didn't. Writing compositions is part of my life. I write a lot. I like to tell stories and share them with people. Because this is my debut album, I wanted to show my personal voice."

Su's personal voice is one that has been slow-cooking from an early age. "In terms of my background, it's not only about jazz," says Su. "I studied classical music from when I was a kid, and I majored in percussion, so I happen to play a lot of modern music like John Cage, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, Keiko Abe and Minoru Miki. Then I came to jazz, so there are all these different kinds of sounds inside my brain."


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