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Interview ‘My band are global guardians, determined to protect the environment’

CHRIS SEARLE speaks to Chinese vocalist Annie Chen on the release of her new album Guardians


IT’S not usual for a jazz album to have a portrait of a jellyfish as its sleeve design, but Beijing-born Annie Chen is a musician who constantly surprises and educates.

With her seven-piece cosmopolitan band of musicians from Brazil, Malaysia, Switzerland, Japan and the US she has recorded her Guardians Suite, an impassioned call to love, respect and protect the natural world, that is being assailed and destroyed all around us, so that what were jellyfish are now in reality poisonous plastics polluting the world’s seas.

The album is an expression of extraordinary cultural cohesion, an amalgam of Polish musical storytelling, Chinese opera, Turkish and Brazilian melody all fused in a jazz spirit of internationalist improvisation, creating a wish that “our children will grow up sweet and strong and help to make a better world.”

Born in 1983, her father was an English translator, her mother worked in Beijing’s Department of Water Resources. She grew up with music: both her parents were classical singers and she learned piano as a child, later entering Beijing’s Central Conservatory.

“I also liked jazz and funk!” she says, “and my father loved jazz and brought back so many records from his business trips between China and the US. Sarah Vaughan’s album with Clifford Brown, Carmen McCrae Sings Monk and Betty Carter’s Round Midnight album were my first inspirations. I listened to them hundreds of times. And Abbey Lincoln’s “no-fear” spirit of singing was such a big influence — particularly her duos with Max Roach’s drums: speechless, amazing!

“I came to the US in 2010, to New York for a six months jazz study, and then again in 2012 for a jazz performance in Queens College.”

The album Guardians was provoked by a winter visit to Acadia National Park in Maine. “It made me think of the damage of climate change and environmental destruction.” When I asked her whether musicians have a responsibility to make music which exposes the jeopardy facing our polluted planet, she exclaimed: “That’s a big YES! As an artist you must send warning messages to your audience. That’s the power of art!”

She is proud to be working with such a cosmopolitan group of musicians. “With our different backgrounds and sounds I try to make my compositions have unique colours. My band are global guardians, determined to protect the environment.”

Japanese percussionist Satoshi Takeshi “has explosive energy and artistic taste”; Swiss-French guitarist Marius Duboule creates “exciting arrangements and emotional, sensitive expression in his playing”; Malaysian violinist Fung Chern Hwei “expresses a deep and energetic understanding of Chinese traditional culture”; US flutist and saxophonist Alex LoRe's playing “is as agile and breathy as a fox — flexible, rational and passionate simultaneously”; Brazilian Vitor Goncalves is “so beautiful, dreamy and melodic on piano and accordion and bassist Mathew Muntz also plays the meh, a Croatian bagpipe.”

When I asked her whether she thought her album has had an impact, making her listeners think more deeply and actively, she says: “Yes, I do think so! In China too!”

And why make the jellyfish a symbol of environmental guardianship? “Jellyfish are one of my favourite ocean species. I wanted to use their image, pictorially and in sound, to warn the people, like I do in my lyrics: “Tell me, where do I live and stay?” You can see this jellyfish has some brown, reddish part. That means they’re very depressed, bleeding and dying with all the white plastic bags polluting the ocean. Many listeners have told me the story has impressed them.”

She thinks the suite’s second movement, dedicated to whales, is the album’s most powerful section, along with the opener Rozpacz (Despair), written by the Polish jazz composer, Zbigniew Namyslowski. It is an essential part of her universal sonic vision that Rozpacz connects to the Beijing classical opera Farewell My Concubine, where a king is surrounded by his enemies, like humanity of now-times is besieged by possible environmental catastrophe.

That such connections can be made are a message of the wondrous syncretism of jazz, conjured by a Chinese woman singing in the heart of New York. As her voice rings out, prophetic and shamamic: “Under the world, the bridge to the sky was broken/ There’s a tearing bloodless moon, hanging where the ocean died/ Holding shadows of my end, losing light of the land.”

Guardians is released by JZ Music


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