It doesn’t matter where you come from or what label you’re on, you’re in for an uphill battle if your new album consists only of vocals and bass. Quickly think of the ways you can broaden these two instruments. You probably didn’t come up with much, did you? You can bow and pluck a bass, or light it on fire and kick it down the stairs if you’re really out of ideas. The human voice is understandably more complex. You can slice it and dice it with different languages and perhaps go for some Tibetan throat singing. Its tonal range can also be stretched very wide, depending on who’s doing the singing. With the exception of instrument abuse, these are the things that Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser rely on for their duet album Synastry. The experience is a singular one that practically screams for a third instrument.
Shyu is known primarily as the vocalist for Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, using her precise attack for maximum effect. While Coleman is leading his band through a turbulent sea of brainy funk jazz, Shyu is dodging around the notes as if in fear of falling into a pattern of any kind. On Synasrty, her style sounds too similar to the last two Five Elements albums and the stark nature of the recording just reinforces how often she’s visiting her well. Not that it’s a well like any other, mind you. She has fashioned a vocal style that somehow melts seven languages: English, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Tetum and Pinuyumayan. All of this over-achievement doesn’t do much when she connects all of her syllables with the same “n” sound and, when singing speedy passages, falls back on the same basic melodic figures as before.
So it’s up to bassist Mark Dresser provide the foundation. A quick look at his references suggests that he’s more than qualified for such a challenging format. Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Tim Berne—the list is impressive. So the five tunes credited to him have slightly more recognizable forms than the six credited to Shyu. “Mattress on a Stick” has what some might recognize as a “riff”, combining the use of a bow with harmonics. His song “Mauger Time” is probably the most compelling one on Synatry partly because of the sense of tension it creates and partly because the two musicians seem to honestly be locked in to one another.
As for the remainder of the album, it’s not really fair to say these two are disconnected. In fact, it’s hard to make that call at all since these lighter-than-air vignettes don’t convey any special telepathy. And it doesn’t help that Jen Shyu is constructing her songs while her head is in academic la-la land. So many of her texts come from obscure origins, ones that destroy any chance you would have for diving into and surrendering unto the music. For instance, the text for “Lunation” comes from “In somnium” by Patricia Magalhães, featuring the following line: “Announcing the power of creation / craving for ejaculation, fecundation, transformation”. You might snicker or you might run to the dictionary, but one thing that you will not do is stop dead in your tracks.
But let’s face it; the cards were stacked against them. Whoever heard of an album with just an acoustic bass and a female voice that turned to improvisation and far Eastern texts for half of its content? I would be very surprised if Synastry finds a substantial audience. And if it happens, I’ll be very glad for them. Until then, Mark Dresser and especially Jen Shyu need to make sure that their technical abilities don’t get away from them. Otherwise, we’re all just stuck with a bunch of notes.