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.