Jazz interview with jazz singer and composer Annie Chen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Annie Chen: – I grew up in Beijing, China. I studied classical piano when I was 4 years old at Central Conservatory of Music for 15 years. My dad always brought me so many CDs from his trips abroad, vinyls of jazz and classical music, I got so much influence from my dad.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?
ACH: – I started listening to jazz music in my early childhood from my dad’s collection, so I didn’t grow up like other Chinese kids around (who’d listen to Chinese pop music etc.) I later studied at Queens College with Charenee Wade, Antonio Hart, David Berkman, Michael Mossman. I choose to become a jazz singer the day I heard Sarah Vaughan singing “Love for Sale”, on that night I cried so many times listening to that song. I was fascinated by how much her music moved me.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
ACH: – Actually before coming to New York, I was already a somehow famous singer in China singing mostly blues and funk music. When I started to be interested with jazz, the way I expressed music changed a lot. Jazz singing implied much more control over my singing (regarding technique, range or dynamics). Especially when studying with Charenee Wade, her training made a lot of difference exploring my head voice and the use of dynamics. And little by little, I started being interested in using my voice as an instrument, trying to have a much more rhythmic approach and as well as blending in the band in a contrapuntal way.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
ACH: – I believe rhythm is a crucial element of music, and before becoming a good singer, you should be a good “drummer”! Lately, I have been studying lots of standards but more with an instrumental approach of the “singer’s songs”, I found so many interesting things in it. I also like to analyze lots of contemporary pieces from great modern jazz composers, like Ben Monder (one of my favorite) and practice lots of different rhythm from each of those modern composer. Also since I am very interested with lots of world music (from Balkan, Eastern European, Middle Eastern…) I found I can study so many different and interesting rhythms; especially after I studied Doumbek drums with Turkish percussionist Nezih Antalki, those lessons really opened up my mind to dig more into those rhythms.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
ACH: – When writing songs I sometime come up with melody first (as in Secret Treetop) and sometimes with chords or grooves first (Majo Kiki or Mr. Wind-up Bird). I usually write music on the piano since the voicings I used are essential to me, to help me come up with the melody. I also borrow some harmonic material from things I hear, consciously or not. So the use of dissonance is definitely something I meant to do. Tensions can make the music interesting and contrasted I think (see intro versus waltz section in Majo kiki).
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
ACH: – I don’t prevent influences, I might not understand some music but don’t reject anything.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
ACH: – I think it would be very dishonest to say it’s all coming from the soul. There’s a lot of knowledge and thinking going into composing this music too. For example melodies or lyrics are surely something I mostly feel where as rhythms are more thought-of but again each composition is a little different in this regard.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
ACH: – I never think about writing something only for audiences, I think if they like my music then good, otherwise they don’t and I am ok with that. I guess most of the time I am doing all the music only for what I like. Being true to yourself is the only way to make honest and maybe impactful music.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
ACH: – While getting ready to release “Secret Treetop” in China earlier this year at Blue Note Beijing, I caught a very heavy cold, coughing non-stop despite taking lots of medicines every day (on top of having to sing every night with my quartet in Hangzhou). On the night of the release, I was still very sick and was barely able to make it. Before singing the second to last song, I told the audience how bad I wanted to cough and so they clapped hands, inspiring me to finish the whole concert, which I think was very successful.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
ACH: – I’m not sure, at least in China I see a lot of young students coming to see me to study jazz singing – especially standards – and they seemed to like it!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
ACH: – My spirit is contained in two words: hot-pot hahaha! This is a very deep question though. First, music is not the only meaningful thing in my life and second I like to think of life as a flowing river. You’re naturally being carried to places without deciding much about it.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
ACH: – Musicians should get paid more, so much hard work but no financial recognition.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
ACH: – I’ve been listening to Jim Hall / Bill Evans Intermodulation a lot lately but also my vibraphonist friend Yuhan Su’s new album called City Animals.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
ACH: – I’m very interested in the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), the peak of traditional Chinese culture (calligraphy, writing, painting, music…) I’d be curious to see it from my own eyes.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
ACH: – What can we do to educate people about sexism in the jazz world?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. We have published a lot about this.
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
ACH: – The flowing river!