Annie Chen and Guardians

Written by | Artists, New Releases, News, Women in Jazz Media

Vocalist, composer, and bandleader Annie Chen recently shared her stunning new album Guardians with the world. Born in Beijing, but now based in New York, Annie brings a beautifully inspired palette from around the world to her artistry, with influences such as Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and the sounds of the Beijing Opera. A story teller like no other, her new album presents a clear vision and message. It was wonderful to catch up with Annie and explore her music.

Congratulations on your fantastic new release Guardians! The inspiration for this album, I believe, came while you were walking in the Acadia National Park and ‘sparked a profound awakening to the intricate relationships connecting humanity, the animal kingdom, and the natural world.’ Can you tell me about that moment?

I like visiting national parks in the winter when it’s the off-season and I feel like the whole nature belongs to animals, without human-beings bothering them. There are three moments during my trip to Acadia National Park that inspired me to write this entire suite. First, on my very first morning, after a late arrival the night before, I woke up to the beautiful, sunny and snowy view of a small bay my house was facing. Right away, I saw a deer family (mom, dad and their fawns) passing by the bedroom window and crossing the garden, seemingly looking for food, with both parents surrounding the children. It was a very touching and peaceful moment, very contrasting with the city life I’m used to – growing up in Beijing and now living in New York. Secondly, even though it wasn’t the whale season during my stay, I kept hoping and looking at reflections of the light on the sea, with the wind, and started to imagine them swimming around. It was fascinating to watch the sea every day, but ultimately also sad not to see them for real. And finally, almost by the end of the trip, when hiking on an icy road in the forest, I suddenly saw a white tail for a split second, that I believe was a fox jumping back into the forest. Those three moments really inspired me to write the whole suite. I really wanted to share the concepts that I have had in mind for a long time, the connection between animals and human-beings, and how these species live in an environment that is constantly threatened.

You have released a brilliant, animated video for ‘The Whale River Song’. Can we explore the concept behind the video and who you worked with?

I’ve always been a big fan of animations, visual arts and films and I’ve always wanted my music to present stories in a visual way. Case Jernigan is an amazing animation artist based in New York and Italy that I’ve recently discovered through a common artist friend. When seeing his work for the first time, it struck me as being very colorful and playful, but also very sensitive and full of evocative imagery and textures which I thought was a perfect match for the storytelling I was looking for with this album. His work uses paint gestures on plastic and various other materials over a series of glass panes. The music from this animation talks about whales in distress trying to communicate with their loved ones. The video references aqueous organisms, scale shifts, communication, music and musical writing, baleine and despair. He’s an incredible artist, you can check him out at

The ensemble you have worked with for this album is beautifully rich and dynamic. Can you tell me what led you to work with these musicians on this project?

This goes back to the idea of storytelling and imagery in my music. It was really important for this repertoire to have access to a variety of sounds and being able to explore multiple instrumentations and colors. Each musician plays at least two instruments and each piece has a different arrangement, using a combination of the 14 instruments used in the album in total. I chose each of the musicians because of their sound, style and various cultural backgrounds but also for their incredible skills as improvisers. Also, the human aspect really mattered, some of the musicians I’ve known and played with for a very long time, including in my last album Secret Treetop. It was essential for me to feel supported to take chances and for the music to come alive.

Photo by Zhaoyin Wang

You will be performing your new album with a range of exciting dates – visualisation and environment are important to you, so what do you hope the audiences will experience in a live performance of the new album compared to purely listening to your album?

I am a big fan of opera, even though I am not a classical singer at all. I believe performance includes body language and acting. I always will put myself into the story and become the character (maybe the fox, or the whale in this case) to speak and sing to the audiences. The album is a fantastic way to discover the music and drama of this repertoire but there will always be something special about a live performance, something about the raw energy of being on stage with other musicians. Also the many improvised sections of the music can sometimes sound very different from one performance to another. For those of you near New York, our next show will be the actual CD release concert, on March 30 at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

You are passionate about sharing music from the New York jazz scene with Chinese audiences and produce the radio show JZ Club. I am presuming you felt that Chinese audiences were not exposed to this music, but can you tell me why you think that is and some examples of the music/artists you play on your show?

I have been a co-host on the radio show ‘JZ Club on Air’ for several years now. The company behind this show is called JZ Music, the only jazz label in China at the moment. Beside being a label, they also own jazz clubs in different cities in China, host jazz festivals and even started jazz music schools too. They really are doing a lot to promote jazz music to Chinese audiences and so it made sense to collaborate with them for the release of this album. There are very few Chinese jazz musicians and educators based in New York, and I take it as a responsibility to share with Chinese audiences the incredible music that I’m witnessing here. That’s one of my goals for this radio show. I was also happy to focus on female jazz musicians only for a few episodes. I want to use my unique position to introduce the best jazz music to Chinese audiences. Some of the musicians based in New York – Brooklyn more specifically – are not always that famous internationally but they’re incredibly creative and have had a huge impact on my art. For example Jacob Sacks, Dan Weiss, Yuhan Su, Rafal Sarnecki, Rick Rosato, Marta Sanchez etc. Some of them also happen to be good friends and co-workers.

You began your music career in Beijing, studying classical piano at the age of four, but then came to New York in 2010 to study and I believe have been there almost ever since. What is the music scene, in particular jazz, like in Beijing compared to New York?

Photo by Zhaoyin Wang

In China, Beijing feels like the best city for jazz, somehow similar to New York in a way; musicians are very passionate and intense in their relationship with music, instead of just treating performance as work or business. I actually went back to China in 2010, then returned to the US by the end of 2012, where I started a master’s degree in Queens College and later on decided to stay. Beijing has more than 15 clubs dedicated to jazz, and more that also feature different types of music. They also have their own jazz festival ‘Beijing International Nine-Gates Jazz Festival’ and some other music festivals that feature jazz bands too. I have performed in these clubs and festivals many times and I really like the vibe there, every musician is very serious about jazz and making progress together. But of course the scene is smaller compared to New York, especially in Beijing where jazz only has had more traction in the past 20 years or so.


You have recently been commissioned by Beijing’s Ear King Music Company to produce Jazz Singing Masterclass Vol.1, for students in China. Can you tell me about that project?

I feel China really lacks correct jazz education, I say “correct”, because a lot of students study with teachers who don’t perform themselves, or don’t even seem to have an affinity with the music in the first place and somehow teach unrelated material to students, far away from the jazz tradition. So this company invited me to produce a series of educational videos and share what I was taught studying with legendary singers here, getting as close to the jazz roots as possible, which I believe is essential when you really want to explore jazz singing. The series starts from very basic knowledge, exploring warm ups, swing rhythm, storytelling, diction, repertoire, scatting etc.

Thank you to Annie for spending time with me and exploring her work.

Guardians is available to purchase here

Annie Chen website click here

This article was originally published in the March 2024 Women in Jazz Media magazine

Last modified: April 1, 2024