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."

Su is not averse to playing the standards, but she gives the impression that they don't motivate her too much. "I do play some jazz standards in concert, but basically it depends on the type of the concert, for example if I don't get a chance to rehearse." There was no such problem when it came time to record Flying Alone, as Su was very familiar with all the musicians. "They were all my colleagues at Berklee," she says. "The alto saxophonist [Rafael Aguiar] is from Brazil; the guitarist [Publio Delgado] and tenor saxophonist [Cesar Joaniquet] are from Spain; the pianist [Christian Li] is originally from Canada; the bassist [Jeong Lim Yang] is from South Korea; and the drummer [Deepak Gopinath] is from India."

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 page—if 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."

During her time at Berklee, Su was awarded what is possibly one of the jazz world's least-known awards, the Most Active Mallet Player award. "I was always in the practice room," Su laughs. "I wanted to develop my understanding of jazz, to try to bring everything together, so I tried to practice as much as I could. Also, I played with a lot of musicians in their concerts around the school. I think that's why I got this award."

Su sings on two tracks on Flying Alone: "Comfort Zone," a beautiful duet with pianist Li, sung in Mandarin Chinese, and the wordless "If You Stay," where Su combines in delightful harmonies with saxophonist Aguiar. Although Su doesn't yet consider herself to be a singer, she does sing in concert and sees the voice as an important part of her armory. "I don't do improvised singing, but I do really like the way the human voice mixes with instrumental sounds, and I'd like to develop it more. I feel my own voice is part of my personal statement."

Apart from singing, Su also plays malletkat on the record, and as Su explains it has obvious advantages over the vibraphone. "The vibraphone is hard to move around to gigs," she says. "The malletkat is lighter. It's really portable, so I use it to play a lot of gigs. It's is a really great tool. It has built-in midi resources. You can choose to use different sounds or connect with a lot of pedals and experiment a lot."

Flying Alone was partly funded through the Kickstarter Backer program, and, as Su recounts, the support she received was invaluable. "I don't think I could have made this album without Kickstarter because I honestly didn't have any budget. Kickstarter is a very international platform. The artist presents his or her project to the website, and you may get help from people all around the world. You propose your project, and you have to have a decent video to introduce your project. You set a reward for the people who support you. It's fun. For example, if people donate $25, they get an autographed CD. So, through this project, I get to know a lot of music fans and new friends."

The CD came out on saxophonist Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music label, which Su couldn't be happier about. "It was a pleasure to be chosen by Inner Circle Music," she enthuses. "It's more like a musicians' collective. At my stage, having just got out of school, being on the Inner Circle Music label is a big help. I'm really impressed by my label-mates and their dedication. I'm new to the industry, and Greg has been a great help in giving us young musicians suggestions and sharing his experiences."

As for jazz in her native Taiwan, Su is confident that the scene is getting stronger. "The interest is growing," says Su. "There are a lot of musicians who have studied in the United States or in Europe, and now they're back in the country, so the jazz scene is definitely growing up. They are several active jazz clubs in Taiwan, and there are big jazz festivals in Taipei and Taichung every year." Su now lives in New York, and although she's finding her feet there, she feels good about things. "I'm just trying to get to know a lot of great musicians," she says. "Life in New York has strongly stimulated me. I feel my music has been inspired by the city. Also, I'm starting to feel more and more freedom in composing—not thinking about any particular style, just trying to explore more."

As for her immediate plans, Su is concentrating on promoting Flying Alone and harbors ambitions to tour the music in America and in Europe, but the writing in the meantime never stops. "I'm writing some new music," says Su, "so hopefully I can start to work on the new CD." Having made the big move from Taiwan to America in 2008, Su's subsequent move from Boston to New York at the beginning of 2013 must have been easy by comparison. With a stellar CD release under her belt, Osby's progressive record label supporting and mentoring her and an ever-widening group of musicians upon whom she can call, Su is no longer flying solo. She is, however, flying high.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yuhan Su

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