The Asian-American singer Jen Shyu speaks several languages, among them English, Spanish, Portuguese and various East Asian tongues from China, Taiwan and East Timor. But then she started performing with saxophonist Steve Coleman. None of her native tongues would serve for his knotty tunes; "doo-bop-a-da" scat singing wasn't going to cut it, either. So she had to devise her own sound and fury — perhaps signifying nothing formally, but full of intense personal feeling.
Steve Coleman has long been known as an inventor of language — a composer who draws equally from rigorous examination of music theory, esoteric natural science and myth, and Charlie Parker. But you don't have to speak his language to be entranced by it. There's flow, and pulse, and delightful chord changes. And, yes, it's a little disorienting, which seems like part of the point. "What human energy could have inspired this sound?" you wonder. Exactly.
Coleman's vision was on display when his band Five Elements played the Newport Jazz Festival last year. But we wanted to know more. So we brought him, Shyu and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson into the ruins of Fort Adams for a more intimate, stripped-down look at his music. We also asked him for a translation into the English language: "If anything, that's what this music is," he later told us from The Jazz Gallery in New York City. "It's a lot of different influences, coming from different places — plus, whatever's coming from inside you, which is the main thing."
Producers: Mito Habe-Evans, Patrick Jarenwattananon; Additional Videography: Erik Jacobs; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Production Assistance: Caleb Curtis; Special thanks to: Newport Jazz Festival, Josh Jackson, Tim Wilkins, Michael Downes, David Tallacksen/WBGO, The Jazz Gallery; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann, Keith Jenkins