Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Feast of Catchy Tunesmithing, Big Ideas and Picturesque Themes on Annie Chen’s New Album

Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.

Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.

It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.

Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.

Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.

The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.

The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.

Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.

Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.

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December 5, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cutting-Edge Vocal Jazz Tunesmithing with Singer/Composer Annie Chen at Cornelia Street Cafe

Annie Chen’s music is as individualistic as it is ambitious –  and it is very ambitious. Being one of the few Chinese-American jazz singer/bandleader/composers out there might have something to do with it. Her show last week leading a first-rate quintet at Cornelia Street Cafe was a revealing and often riveting glimpse at how much she’s grown both as a writer and singer in the last couple of years.

Chen loves contrasts, and cinematic narratives, and bright, translucent themes that she takes to a lot of unexpected places. She has a soul-infused voice with a little vibrato trailing off for effect in places. English is still relatively new to her, but she sings as an instrumentalist and doesn’t let linguistic challenges get in the way. There’s a persistent if distant angst in a lot of her work, counterbalanced by her friendly, charismatic presence and sardonic sense of humor out in front of the band.

Chen vocalized enigmatically against a spiky, circling Marius Duboule guitar figure as the opening diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning got underway, then introduced an understatedly triumphant crescendo over a swaying, subtly samba-tinged groove that eventually launched a sailing Nathaniel Gao alto sax solo with a terseness to match Chen’s own bobbing melody. Polyrhythmic pairings between drummer Deric Dickens and Duboule’s jagged clang over bassist Michael Bates’ increasingly dark, dancing drive brought the song home.

Chen slowly launched into Orange Tears Lullaby with a low, moody resonance over another circular guitar intro, Gao adding peppery phrases against the beat, then mirroring Chen’s brooding atmosphere as the rhythm section kicked in with an incisive, propulsive vamp.

Next was Chen’s own arrangement of the big 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree), a bittersweet peasant-in-the-big-city tale, toyed with the rhythm, her nuanced mezzo-soprano delivery ripe with anticipation but sobered by reality. Her own composition Leaving Sonnet also channeled mixed emotions: longing for home but hope for the future in new surroundings. A harried, stairstepping vocal theme gave way to a calmer pulse colored by the sax, rising and falling in and out of an uneasy waltz.

The one standard on the bill was a moody, languid but emphatic interpretation of the ballad You’ve Changed, Chen underscoring how much of a kiss-off anthem it is. Duboule is a big fan of Chinese tea, and the author of a tea-inspired suite. His composition Tie Guan Yin turned out to be a clinic in lavish chords and pastoral splashes over a simple blues pattern steamed up by Dickens’ cymbals. Chen, a tea drinker herself, endorsed how aptly the song conveys the experience of drinking deep and savoring the flavor.

The group closed with the best song of the night, Ozledim Seni, Chen’s flurrying vocal riffage over Duboule’s broodingly kinetic, Balikan-infused guitar echoed by Gao’s eerie modalities as the rhythm expanded. Jazz anthems don’t usually get this catchy or intense. Chen is somebody to keep your eye on; watch this space for upcoming shows.

July 14, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Annie Chen Brings Her Fearlessly Eclectic, Soulful, Smart New Jazz Compositions to Midtown

Annie Chen sings with a resolute, purposeful alto voice, often with a sense of suspense. But her greatest strength right now, as she becomes more comfortable with her adopted English language, is as a composer. Singer/composers in jazz are rare; those as ambitious, and fearless, and have as much of a gift for melody as Chen are rarer still. She has no issues with leapfrogging from one influence to another, whether that’s vintage soul, the folk and classical music of her native China, purposeful American postbop or more epic larger-ensemble sounds with intricate and unpredictable charts. There’s a sense of the surreal, even a dream state, that permeates much of what she writes, and it draws the listener in. She’s got an auspicious gig coming up on July 10 at 7 PM at Club Bonafide, leading a septet with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Alex Lore on saxophone and flute, David Smith on trumpet, Marius Duboule on guitar, Desmond White on bass and Jerad Lippi on drums, with special guest violinist Tomoko Omura, who’s collaborated vividly with Chen in the past. Cover is $10.

In the time since Chen’s 2014 sextet album Pisces the Dreamer, she’s grown considerably as both as a singer and as a writer. While it’s worth a spin if imaginative postbop arrangements and tunesemithing are concerned, Chen’s most intriguing material right now is recent, and it’s up at her audio and video pages. Check out her septet gig at Flushing Town Hall earlier this year. There’s Orange Tears Lullaby, with its suspenseful pizzicato violin intro into to a lush, vampy verse and eventually a balmy, crescendoing coda over a determined triplet groove. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning mashes up an Asian folk-tinged theme over a balletesque pulse as Chen scats the blues, alto saxophonis Alex LoRe spiraling optimistically over Jarrett Cherner’s incisive, low-key piano.

Leaving Sonnet is more enigmatic, moody and introspective but with a solid groove as well, trumpeter David Smith slowly and methodically following Chen’s countours as the theme grows more energetic and optimistic, a door closing while another one opens. She also covers Nirvana and a Mongolian folk tune that she turns into a bittersweet tone poem.

And if you have the time, contrast the gritty 2014 Shapeshifter Lab take of another, older original, the latin soul-inspired Things I Know with the much more confident and dynamic version she and the group delivered onstage in Queens earlier this year. Since her arrival from Beijing, Chen has really grabbed the tiger by the tail and hasn’t looked back. Let’s hope she sticks around.

July 2, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment