Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.
Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.
It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.
Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.
Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.
The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.
The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.
Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.
Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.