The 21st century has brought forth a new generation of dynamic young jazz musicians. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su is a standout among them.
Inspired by her musical heroes and her adopted home of New York City, Su created her third album, City Animals, which beautifully captures the city’s frantic and frenetic intensity.
Su has eschewed the piano in her current quintet, making hers the only instrument capable of playing chords. This opens up a great deal of space, leaving her able to create unique sonic landscapes as both lead instrument and in support of her single-note playing counterparts.
Su also understands the importance of not overplaying, giving her music an organic quality and enabling her cohorts to shine in the space provided. The end result is a groove-laden, energetic album full of marvelous song craft and a great sense of fun. City Animals is an album worthy of exploration.
Yuhan Su took timeout of her busy schedule to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What pushed you down this musical path (jazz)?
Yuhan Su: I’ve always liked the idea of creating something new. I like writing short stories, poetry, songs and I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a teenager. I think creativity is something I’ve always known is within me, and jazz came to my world when I was in college, fulfilling my dream of doing creative things in music.
I grew up studying classical music in Taiwan — majoring in Percussion and minoring in Piano — until I finished with a Masters degree from Taipei University of the Arts. Gary Burton and Chick Corea came to Taiwan for their anniversary duo tour, and watching them play and communicate with each other so naturally really inspired me. I wanted to learn to speak out for myself entirely in music, which I think is improvisation. So I went to Berklee College of Music to pursue Jazz Vibraphone Performance.
How do you describe your compositional style?
There is often something I specifically want to catch or remember in each of my compositions. It can be memories, movements, textures, shapes, dynamics, or something else. I try to re-create those events in a musical way. I like listening to lots of different styles of music, and because I grew up playing lots of 20th century composers’ percussion music, I think it had a major impact on me and my writing.
What do you enjoy most about jazz?
I like the tradition of making something simple into something grand because of the music’s unlimited possibilities. You really get to learn different ways of playing a jazz song while checking out records from history, like how to re-create forms, make new melodies, and exploring different rhythms and grooves. These things constantly fascinate me.
Talk about City Animals, how you brought it to life, and what you want listeners to get out of it.
After I released my second record A Room of One’s Own, I decided to re-shape the sound of my quintet. I added a saxophone instead of a guitar to the band, so I got to write more two-part counterpoint melodies in order to create more sonic tension. I was also able to explore some quality trio moments with only the vibraphone, drums, and bass. City Animals album is a collection of compositions that I wrote for catching the heartbeat of New York City and memories from being on the road. There is also a suite inspired by a Chinese mythology about a Kua Fu (giant) who chased the sun. On this record, I want to express the sense of energy to keep moving forward, letting things form or fall into its own beauty along the way.
Musically I wanted to create the contrast in rhythm, harmony, and musical space. I like writing thoroughlycomposed material to build clear direction of the music’s structure, but I also want my band members to have enough creative freedom to paint this sound with one another.
There appear to be more female bandleaders in jazz than ever before. How have the politics of gender in the music industry affected your career path?
I always root for the idea that I want people to see me as an artist, not emphasizing gender. Every individual artist has their own strengths, character and uniqueness. That may involve gender, but I don’t want it to be the main impression people use to make their judgments.
I will say it has mostly been an advantage to be a woman in jazz. It also has its own negative side.For example, I think sometimes it’s harder to get people to take you seriously, so I do my best to work hard on my craft and be firm with what I do.
Where would you like to take your instrument from here, musically?
To be honest, I’m still thinking about it, after releasing three records in a relatively short period of time. Vibraphone is an instrument full of possibilities. It can be used in different positions of a band and create diverse effects for the music. That’s what I love about it! I want to keep pushing forward with this idea.
So what I want to do is to start playing with both smaller and larger ensembles. I want to have a trio playing more improvisational-based music, and also write for a larger ensemble playing more thoroughly composed music.
You’re leading your dream band. Who is playing behind you? It can be anyone, living or dead, from any era.
This is a challenging and interesting question. There is some my idols I really would love to play with, like Mark Turner, Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder, David Virelles, Linda Oh, Marcus Gilmore (some of whom I’ve gotten to play with over the years). Sometimes the combination of musicians and the music’s context will affect the setting of a dream band.
I was re-listening to Miles Davis’s Miles Smiles this week, and I am stunned by the music. Specifically how the individual jazz giants contributed to this music and let it become a magical whole. So I would really love to experience being on that bandstand, with Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. It’s crazy even thinking about it!
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