Annie Chen’s Secret Treetop


SECRET TREETOP / CHEN: Ozlidem Seni. Majo Kiki in 12 Days. Secret Treetop.+ Orange Tears Lullaby. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning. Leaving Sonnet.* FU: Ao Bao Xiang Hui. My Ocean is Blue in White. XIANG: Gan Lan Shu [Olive Tree] / Annie Chen Octet: Annie Chen, voc; Rafal Sarnecki, el-gtr; Tomoko Omura, el-vln; David Smith, tpt/*fl-hn; Alex LoRe, a-sax/+fl; Glenn Zaleski, pno; Matthew Muntz, bs; Jerad Lippi, dm / Shanghai Audio & Video (no number)

This album, scheduled for release November 2, is surely something different: Chinese-inspired jazz that at times sounds more Middle Eastern than Far Eastern. Annie Chen has more of a mezzo-soprano voice than a soprano one, rich and full, and sings out joyously, and her backup band plays in a quasi-bop style with a mixture of backbeats and shuffle rhythm. Her scatting, to my ears, shows the dual influence of Middle Eastern music and bebop, and her compositions are fascinating in their cross-cultural references.

The result is an album that swings in an unusual way. Alto saxist Alex LoRe has a light, airy sound, somewhat like that of Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond, but plays in a musical style closer related to Eastern modes. As a whole, the band has a feel not unlike that of Lebanese musician Rabih Abou-Khalil, except that it is more bop and far-Eastern in style and does not include ouds. Since Chen is a singer, it is also vocal-oriented, and I was fascinated by the frequent time and tempo shifts in her compositions, particularly in Majo Kiki in 12 Days where she modulates her voice with a crescendo here and there, almost like a classical vocalist. Her diction is as clear as a bell, too.

Moreover, all of the musicians in her octet are plugged into the same aesthetic and fully committed to her style. Ordinarily, I don’t much like electric violinists, but Tomoko Omura plays with such fresh ideas and a real jazz feel (as opposed to rock or R&B) that I found invigorating. Following his solo is a remarkable chorus in which pianist Zaleski plays staccato chords while Chen improvises a scat vocal above him. In the next chorus she sings lyrics, the rhythm changes beneath her, and yet everything flows so well that it sounds perfectly natural. In Tong Fu’s Ao Bao Xiang Hui, based on an Inner Mongolian folk song, the guitar plays almost like a Chinese erhu in the background while bop lines occur in the foreground, and Chen’s rich voice sounds more like Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer. Trumpeter David Smith embarks on a stupendous solo, sounding for all the world like the late Clifford Brown, while Chen interjects scat licks in the foreground, then the tempo doubles as Zaleski plays piano licks against the backbeats of Jerad Lippi’s drums. Smith and LoRe later come in behind him, playing slow unison figures, and later Chen re-enters to sing along with them. This is interesting stuff! Only in the title track does Chen resort to a bit of gimmickry in the opening chorus, double-tracking her voice with extra reverb, but once we reach the tune proper she sings out beautifully and the music becomes more complex and interesting. One of the things I liked about her scat solo in this one was the way she “bounces” the rhythm like Chu Berry.

Annie Chen at Blue Note Beijing

Chen at the Blue Note in Beijing

What holds one’s attention in this album is the incredible variety of musical styles as one moves from track to track, and even within tracks. I can’t think of a jazz vocalist who so controls his or her musical environment as well as Chen does; only the late Mark Murphy comes close, and Murphy vacillated too much towards contemporary pop styles at times for my taste. Chen’s music is clearly non-commercial. This is art, and art on a very high level. Orange Tears Lullaby is probably the closest to a conventional tune on this album, placing a lyrical and metrically regular melody above pizzicato playing by violin and guitar, later underscored by the trumpet and sax, and even in this track the musical taste she exhibits raises the song above the mundane (not to mention her absolutely amazing voice). The violin solo on this one is pitched in a lower key, sounding more like a viola, as the tempo (and meter) shift underneath. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yerarning has its own irregular but happy-sounding pulse, with LoRe playing an outstanding alto solo. This one, too, is a quasi-straightforward piece, but unusual sounds (and rhythms) return on Leaving Sonnet. Chen can clearly operate in a standard jazz format, but she prefers to create her own musical world. In this one, the rhythm of the tune seems to follow the speech patterns of the lyrics as a regular beat is suspended throughout the first chorus.

It would take too much space in this review for me to detail all the little things that are going on in each track of this CD, but take my word for it, you will be delighted and inspired by this music. This isn’t your grandpa’s vocal jazz album!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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