After 75 Years is an ambitious work. Macy Chen has created a concept album of sorts about the parallel lives of herself and her grandfather. Both Chen and her grandfather, Chin-Chang Liu, had left their homes in Taiwan to pursue jazz music, against the practical wisdom of their friends and family. Though she never met her grandfather, Macy Chen always felt a connection with him through jazz music.
Rather than use the lyrics themselves to tell a story, Macy Chen has created an extensive framework for her songs that lend them further layers of meaning. Imagining this record as a conversation with her grandfather, Macy Chen creates a musical dialogue that draws on old Shanghai tunes (such as the ones her grandfather might have played), American standards, and her own originals. In this way, Chen manages to explore Japan as her grandfather may have experienced it, the United States as she experiences it, and of course, through her originals, Taiwan.
This is a grand undertaking, and the packaging is worthy of the concept. The album comes in an oversized booklet that resembles a mailed packaged, complete with stamps. The inside comes with six letters, each one an imagined conversation between Macy Chen and her grandfather. Each letter comes in its own specially designed envelope, made to resemble the time period the letters cover, from the 1930s to email. Also inside are four removable wallet sized photos of Macy Chen. All of this helps to give an intimate and personal feel to the project.
Despite the eclectic track list, the album maintains a unified feel. The set is dominated by Macy Chen's voice, which showcases great range and clarity. Her voice works best in ballads, as some tunes, like "The Wandering Songstress," can be strangled in all the vocal flourishes. On other tunes, like "My Only Love," Chen builds on the soft and melancholy mood with impressive control and restraint. Her range and almost woodwind-like delivery can make for beautiful improvisation—check out the held notes on "Reminisce" for proof.
The album is well produced, and usually the songs benefit from the stately, controlled atmosphere, although outstanding tracks like "Harlem Fantasia" leave the listener wishing the musicians had a little more room to stretch out.
Overall, this is a classy and ambitious effort, if the songs themselves are not quite as remarkable as the ideas they represent.