Annie Chen Offers ‘Treetop’ Perspective

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Vocalist and composer Annie Chen, who was born in Beijing, is based in New York.

(Photo: Yawen Jiang)

In a recent performance at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab, the Annie Chen Octet navigated odd meters framing Mongolian folk songs, Balkan and Turkish rhythms driving through-composed compositions and metric-modulation-sourced arrangements supporting Chen’s exhilarating vocals.

A former child piano prodigy from Beijing, the 35-year-old’s music had the grace and power of originality.

“When I came to New York in 2012, my purpose was to study standards,” Chen said. “Through my two years earning my master’s degree at Queens College, I focused on jazz standards. I was at school during the daytime, and every evening I’d go out to hear all the other kinds of music. I went to Nublu so many times because they have a lot of world music. Then I began private study with a vocal coach from Egypt. Before that, I’d studied doumbek drumming with a Turkish percussionist.”

Chen’s unique cross-pollinations can be heard on her second album, Secret Treetop (Shanghai Audio & Video Ltd.), which the bandleader recorded with her octet, a group that’s gigged around the city for about four years.

“When I wrote the title track, I was thinking of musicians,” Chen said. “As musicians, we should be standing on the top of the trees and seeing the whole world. That view will be much wider and more open-minded, and we’ll see everything differently.”

Choosing each member of the octet for their specific talents, Chen brought in Canadian-born David Smith for the trumpet chair: “Annie’s music walks the line between complicated and melodic,” Smith noted. “You hear her singing this material—she makes things that are pretty complicated sound palatable. She makes this interesting music sound normal, and that’s unusual.”

The 10-song program for Secret Treetop explores so much rhythmic, melodic, historic and pan-global terrain, it’s like circling planet Earth in a brief but thrilling hour. “Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning,” which was inspired by a Haruki Murakami novel, features a dense, pointillist-like arrangement.

There’s also a rendition of the Mongolian folk song “Ao Bao Xiang Hui” (“A Date In The Yurt”), a romantic number that’s familiar to Chen’s circle of friends in her native Beijing.

“People in north and south China are very different,” Chen explained. “In the north, we’re more related to the Mongolian heart, so we get a very unique feeling when listening to Mongolian music. Unlike typical Asian singers, who have a high-pitched, bright, sharp voice, female Mongolian singers have a very low, wide and rich tone.”

A winner of multiple Chinese piano competitions from the age of 4, Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in classical studies. Inspired by Sarah Vaughan records, the composer changed direction in her teens and began singing, performing as a member of a few Chinese r&b bands.

Chen, who currently is experimenting with various combinations of musicians for her next release, holds down a monthly trio residence at Tomi Jazz, a subterranean club in midtown.

“What impresses me is Annie’s conception, which is clear,” Smith said. “Rafał wrote the arrangements; his stamp is very much a part of the [music]. Yet, there’s a common thread in Annie’s music. Her conception is very similar to that of an instrumentalist. The melodies, the general tone of the songs, the odd meters—that’s all Annie. And she lets her Chinese background come through in her music, too. This original and unusual thing she has is very honest.” DB