Jo-Yu Chen: Savage Beauty

Dan McClenaghan By

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The cover art of pianist Jo-Yu Chen's fourth album, Savage Beauty, is provocative and beautiful. So is the music. There is a sense of a "stepping up of the game," in terms of public persona and artistry. Chen has always taken the physical product—the hard copy of her CDs—seriously, beginning with her debut, Obsession (Sony Music Taiwan, 2009), through Incomplete Soul (Sony Music, 2012), then Stranger (Okeh, 2014). On Savage Beauty she embraces an over-the-top glamor mode in this regard, and backs up the visual audaciousness with a freer and more stimulating piano trio sound.

The disc of (mostly) Chen originals begins with "Slightly Ajar," a first take on the first day of recording, a warm up trio improvisation so free and darkly beautiful that the decision was made to use it as the opener. "Creeper," the ninth of the set's ten tunes, rolls in a similar style, a drifting abstraction of a quartet improvisation, with guest saxophonist Mark Turner joining the core trio of Chen, bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer Tommy Crane to paint an ominous soundscape full of shades of deep grey.

Chen has a talent for picking her guest artists. Turner sits in on four tunes—following the mode of Stranger, where Chen employed guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel to enhance her trio sound on selected cuts. On "Panthers," Turner's clean tone, punctuated by Chen's crisp piano touch, opens the tune before Chen and her trio mates take things "out there" with a free-ranging bravado before the sound gels into a structural tighten-up with the saxophonist's reentry.

The title track is a perfectly-arranged quartet tune, laid down in a spare fashion—an intense ballad inspired by British fashion designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010). Chen states that she "always wanted to express myself as delicate, dramatic and playful but ulta powerful," attributes of McQueen's empowering fashion approach that the pianist transfers to her music.

Having made a big leap forward with Stranger, Chen has evolved further—in part under the influence of McQueen—with Savage Beauty, crafting a sound that is at times restrained—with a jungle cat menace humming just below the surface—and at times unshackled and flamboyant. For Chen, the album represents an emergence from a period of personal darkness with strength and style.

Track Listing: Slightly Ajar; Panthers; Stay With Me; Savage Beauty; Walking Through Fear; A Tale Of Two Cites; Spooky Ooky; Song For Twins (Mia & Max); Creepers; Will I See You Again.

Personnel: Jo-Yu Chen: piano; Christopher Tordini: bass; Tommy Crane: drums; Mark Turner: saxophone (2, 4, 6, 9).

Title: Savage Beauty | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Sony Music

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