Annie Chen: Guardians

Beijing-born, NY-based singer leads such as bagpipe and accordion in an assertive blend of classical and folk music, hard-bop and free improv


Over-arching singer Annie Chen’s borrowings from Chinese and other cultures is the concept of animal life at bay, illustrated by songs of unrestrained narrative urgency. For her septet the songs’ forms are merely starting points and the instrumentation is a store of understated but exciting possibilities.

Chen’s eponymous guardians, enshrined in a four-movement suite, are keepers of the flame of human existence as they ironically ignite – or pollute – our surroundings and threaten other species within them: whales, foxes, jellyfish.

Of course, we have to be told that – as we are by bassist Mathew Muntz in liner notes when he reconfigures essentially abstract musical sound with programmatic detail; thus the drifting Jellyfish All Around depicts not silent shoals of medusozoans but, “in a horror movie-style twist”, countless plastic bags. The Whale River Song is familiarly onomatopoeic as well as lyrical, and Vanished Tails, No Return is a tally-ho fox hunt to extinction. All are illustrated with deft arranging by guitarist Marius Duboule and Chen’s elasticity of voice in mesmerising lyrics and vocalese.

The key to her creativity is there in an earlier track, Güle Güle Istanbul, a song of farewell to music by Edo Lui. Its three stanzas are subject to seemingly endless repetition, the third pulled hither and thither by metrical revision and enjambment and all moved along by accordion and violin.

Rozpacz (Despair), the first of two Chen takes on works by 20th-century Polish composers – this one by Zbigniew Namyslowski – is pure theatre, in fact that of Beijing Opera and the classic Farewell My Concubine. Chen’s vocalised narration and the conversational bass and fusillade drumming speak, to her satisfaction at least, not of the opera’s fateful hero but of environmental damage. In Rosemary’s Lullaby she draws the spookiness of Krzysztof Komeda’s theme music for the film Rosemary’s Baby and replaces it with a song of hope.

Underground Dance, also not part of the suite, is just that – but also post-apocalyptic. It pirouettes joyfully and complicatedly via a repeated, modulating figure but Chen sees it as a tour of “an infernal system of tunnels”. Once we know, we understand; but we have to be told in the first place. All bar the suite are arranged by Rafal Sarnecki.

Rozpacz; Underground Dance; Rosemary’s Lullaby; Güle Güle Istanbul; Guardians Suite: The Northern Eyes / The Whale River Song / Jellyfish All Around / Vanished Tails, No Return (52.52)
Chen (v); Marius Duboule (g, arr); Fung Chern Hwei (vn, vla); Mathew Muntz (b, Croatian bagpipe); Alex LoRe (as, f, bcl); Vitor Gonçalves (acc, p); Satoshi Takeishi (d, pc); Rafal Sarnecki (arr). New York, 8 December 2022, 7 May 2023.
JZ Music JZC24001