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Annie Chen — Guardians
(Bandcamp JZ Music JZC24001, 2024, CD / DL)

by Jon Davis, Published 2024-04-20

Guardians Cover art

After her engaging octet album, Secret Treetop, vocalist Annie Chen returns with a septet project called Guardians. Once again, her music is centered on modern jazz but incorporates many other influences to create a unique and intriguing album. Alex LoRe (woodwinds) and Matthew Muntz (bass) return from the octet, while guitarist Rafał Sarnecki contributes some arrangements but does not play. The ensemble is filled out by Fung Chern Hwei (violin, viola), Marius Duboule (guitar, some arrangements), Vitor Gonçalves (accordion, piano), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums, percussion). The album starts out with “Rozpacz (Despair),” which takes a composition by Polish saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski and blends in a bit of the Peking opera from 1922 清逸居士 (“Farewell My Concubine” which lent its title to the 1993 film). After stating the dramatic theme, the group veers into an improvisational section where Chen sings lines from the opera in a more-or-less traditional fashion with wild vocal swoops, then the ensemble coalesces into a breezy jazz section. In the middle section, Chen improvises again, producing a fascinating amalgam of jazz scatting, Chinese opera, and extended vocal techniques. The important thing to note is that it’s fun and entertaining, though it might be jarring to someone who’s expecting Sarah Vaughan (or Laufey!). “Underground Dance” is a Chen original with English and Chinese lyrics depicting a future human race that has fled underground to escape a ravaged environment. The piece has an unusual structure and a complex melody that should intrigue any fan of modern jazz. “Rosemary’s Lullaby” takes Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from Rosemary’s Baby and transforms it into a song of hope for a child to find peace in a crazy world. The lyrics are in Chinese, but an English translation is provided in the booklet. With accordion and viola, Sarnecki’s arrangement evokes Eastern Europe. “Güle Güle Istanbul” naturally brings Turkey to mind, though again with a Far Eastern twist, and the violin especially gets to shine. The album finishes with the four-part title suite, an examination of the relationship between humans, animals, and the Earth. Chen takes this serious subject matter and presents it with a light touch courtesy of the acoustic instrumentation. Her version of jazz is inventive and far-ranging, venturing into unusual territory while remaining based in something that is recognizable. As I’ve said before, I’m wary of vocal jazz, but Annie Chen does it just right. Her lower range is especially evocative, but she shows great imagination in all of her choices, no matter how seemingly incongruous they may seem.

Filed under: New releases, 2024 releases

Related artist(s): Annie Xuanyu Chen

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