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.