All the Right Moves: Yuhan Su Ponders Life in the City and on the Road

“I keep migrating to larger cities,” says vibraphonist Yuhan Su. Born in a small town in Taiwan, Su, at the age of 18, moved to its cosmopolitan capital, Taipei, to study classical percussion. The city still wasn’t big enough for her, so in 2008 she settled into Boston, where she studied jazz vibraphone at Berklee College of Music. Four years later, she moved to New York City, where, thus far, she’s remained.

“I was watching a documentary about animals migrating through the seasons, and I saw myself in it,” Su says. “Something always drives me on to the next destination. I see myself as a city animal.”

Hence the recent release of City Animals (Sunnyside), the vibraphonist’s third album. The quintet session explores, in part, Su’s quest for an orderly life within a chaotic metropolis. “The record is also about cross-cultural experience,” she explains. “Not only in New York, but in my experience touring around the world.”

The album’s opening track, “Y el Coche se Murió,” for example, was inspired by an anxious occasion when her band’s car died on a Spanish highway. “Viaje” takes a more general view of the stress of international travel and, by extension, the migrant experience. But City Animals also documents her adventures in New York City, from her regular gig as a dance studio accompanist (“Feet Dance”) to her encounters with the city’s energetic nightlife (“Party 2AM”). The album’s centerpiece, the three-part “Kuafu” suite, draws on the Chinese mythological tale of a giant’s folly — chasing the sun — as an ironic metaphor for her own restlessness.

The music itself is intensely rhythmic, harmonically open post-bop jazz, although Su’s use of polyrhythmic patterns does evoke the modern classical composers she studied in Taiwan. It’s no accident that she displays all of her musical influences on City Animals. In her journey from strictly notated classical music to improvised jazz, Su sees another metaphor for her transition from Taiwanese to American culture.

“I think they are related,” she says. “In Asian culture, we are more reserved, less willing to show our own ideas. Life here is more about speaking out, saying what you want, expressing your individuality.” For now, as judged by the evidence on City Animals, impassioned individual expression is serving Su well. —Michael J. West

Feature photo credit: Te-Fan Wang.

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