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Annie Chen Octet

Secret Treetop

Shanghai Audio & Video , No Number. [60:00]


Ozledim Seni

Majo Kiki in 12 Days

Ao Bao Ziang Hui

Secret Treetop

Orange Tears Lullaby

Mr. Wind-Up Bird / Strange Yearning

Leaving Sonnet

Gan Lan Shu

My Ocean is Blue in White

Anni Chen (vocal, lyrics, composer), Rafal Sarnecki (electric guitar, arrangements), Tomoko Omura (5-string violin), David Smith(trumpet, flugelhorn), Alex LoRe (alto sax, flute), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Matthew Muntz (bass), Jerad Lippi (drums).

Rec. Big Orange Sheep Recording Studio, Brooklyn. November 7 & 9, 2017.


Here, if ever there was, is a record to which that much overused term ‘world music’ can rightly be applied. Its moving spirit is the Chinese-born New York resident Annie Chen. Most of the tracks are compositions by her, but two are folksongs, ‘A Bao Xiang Hui’ (from Inner Mongolia) and ‘Gan Lan Shu’ from Taiwan. The arrangements throughout are by guitarist Rafal Sarnecki, who was born in Warsaw but has been based in New York since 2005.

The musicians making up the group are a multinational blend with wide experience. In addition to Chen from China, and Sarnecki from Poland, the band includes Japanese-born violinist Tomoko Omura (now resident in Brooklyn) who has worked with saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera and George Garzone, as well as vocalist Joanna Wallfisch and in her own ensembles. Trumpeter David Smith is from Canada; he has played, live or in the studio with, amongst others, Jon Gordon, Harry Connick Jr., Arturo O’Farrill and Carla Bley. The Octet also includes several American jazzmen well-established on the New York scene. Pianist Glenn Zaleski’s musical CV includes Ravi Coltrane and Art Hoenig and he has made trio recordings under his own name. Saxophonist and flautist Alex LoRe has worked with Garzone, as well as frequently spending time with Zaleski in other musical contexts. Bassist Matthew Muntz has had plenty of experience in a variety of musical settings around New York. The drummer Jerad Lippi has contributed to sessions led by Jimmy Greene, Jon Faddis, Wycliffe Gordon and many others.

China, Mongolia, Japan, Taiwan, Poland, Canada and the USA have all, then, contributed ingredients to the dish Chen cooks up here. At times, too, there are Turkish and Balkan ‘flavours’, as on the opening track, ‘ Ozledim Seni’. A friend of Lebanese origin who happened to call when the album was playing claimed to detect some debts to Middle-Eastern music too. So, the ‘recipe’ is certainly a rich one – but I, for one, don’t find the resulting dish either indigestible or too heavy. It is a joyful celebration of musical creativity which crosses the boundaries we too readily seek to impose on it. It is organized but passionate music – there is little or nothing of the ‘wildness’ of free jazz here

Annie Chen apparently started out, in China, as a student of classical piano, later developing strong interests in jazz (her father was a businessman who often travelled to the USA and, as a jazz-lover, often brought back records from there – when his daughter first heard recordings by Sarah Vaughan she wanted to be a jazz singer) and traditional musics from around the globe. The press release for this CD quotes Chen’s explanation of its title: “When you are standing at the top of the tree, you can see a much wider world. It’s just like that when you’re making music: You need to see farther and open your mind and heart. Everything must be open”. Such openness is certainly evident throughout this album; but this is not the music of superficial eclecticism. Everything is used with purpose and all the elements, whether borrowed, written or improvised, are fully integrated one with another. (The Octet has apparently been together since 2015, which has no doubt helped the creation of this integration).

Annie Chen’s voice mostly occupies what, in the classical world would be called the mezzo-soprano range, but she is quite capable of operating above that range at times. She sings in English (occasionally the diction isn’t absolutely clear, but the lyrics are printed in the accompanying booklet) and she sings in Chinese, she produces wordless melismas, she scats, she sings with the band behind her and she uses her voice as an additional instrument in the band– and she does it all very well. Her rhythmic sense is secure, though I suppose I should admit, on a jazz page, that she doesn’t swing all that often. This is more than made up for by those around her. On alto saxophone the playing of Alex LoRe is fascinating; in tone he is more Lee Konitz than Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, but throughout his work has an attractive, understated swing. Pianist Glenn Zaleski owes a little to Bill Evans (which modern pianist doesn’t?) but he can run bop lines and even some ‘free’ work at moments. Violinist Tomoko Omura can make her instrument sing and dance (as I know from hearing her versions of tunes like Charlie Parker’s ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’ and Denzil Best’s ‘Wee’ on her 2017 trio album Post Bop Gypsies) and she does so to good effect on ‘Majo Kiki in 12 Days’, for example. David Smith can sound like a latterday Kenny Dorham or even Clifford Brown, not least in a superb solo on ‘Ao Bao Ziang Hui’ – that solo alone is enough to justify the price of admission, as it were. ‘Ao Bao Ziang Hui’ is a particularly interesting and successful track, full of unexpected developments (which always seem wholly logical in retrospect), changes of tempo and some lovely touches in the arrangement. Apart from his arrangements (generally very good), guitarist Rafal Sarnecki makes some telling contributions instrumentally, notably on ‘ Ozledim Seni’ (I think this is my favourite track, perhaps because I also love Turkey very much; my Turkish is extremely limited but I think this title means something like “I miss you”) and ‘ Ao Bao Xiang Hui’. Sarnecki’s work is never over-busy or overbearing, something one should also say about the work of drummer Jerad Lippi. Bassist Matthew Muntz opens the whole album dramatically with an intro on bowed bass which sounds liked a voice from the depths.

I could pick out more highlights, but anyone who has read this far will have realized that this is an album I recommend to all whose musical diet (to return to a metaphor I used earlier) will permit the nourishment and enjoyment of some well-played music which isn’t for the jazz purist, but in which jazz serves as the lens through which many kinds of music are seen.

Glyn Pursglove

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