Annie Chen: Secret Treetop

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International jazz used to mean jazz in more or less conventional form played by non-American musicians. Their contribution to the music was an often slavish devotion. These days, it usually means jazz remoulded by non-Americans to their own shape and vision.

What results is often debatable in terms of jazz content, whatever that may mean, but it at least indicates musicians who consider themselves happy to be counted within the jazz fold, if urging the elasticity of its boundaries. 

This is supremely true of China-born Annie Chen, who lives in New York. Her octet (a term with connotations of classical music and its performance but here having a regular rhythm section over-layered with five-string violin and other instruments doubled by band members) is marshalled on this stimulating disc to take in disparate geographical influences from China – obviously – Mongolia and Taiwan.

Chen applies a sturdy but supple voice both to her own compositions – music and lyrics – and to these traditional songs, merging their sentiments to suggest nebulous states (“I wake up, but where, I don’t know”). The general lack of particularity helps maintain her voice’s focus as one of the eight instruments. Results are often intriguing, with the singer’s jazz credentials as a phrase-maker contrasting with the cool arrangements of guitarist Rafal Sarnecki.

There’s an earthiness here which might seem at odds with Chen’s aerial flights, but as in all forms of interesting contrast there’s something compelling going on, from straightforward jazz tunings to sounds that echo from long distances in the East but are clearly headed for jazzland. And she’s consistent: eclectic tastes were early in evidence on her first album, Pisces the Dreamer, in 2014.

Discography
Ozledim Seni; Majo Kiki in 12 Days; Ao Bao Xiang Hui; Secret Treetop; Orange Tears Lullaby; Mr Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning; Leaving Sonnet; Gan Lan Shu; My Ocean Is Blue in White (60.02)
Annie Chen (v); Rafal Sarnecki (g, arr); Tomoko Omura (vln); David Smith (t, flh); Alex LoRe (as, f); Glenn Zaleski (p); Mathew Muntz (b); Jerad Lipp (d). New York, November 2017.
Shanghai Audio & Video