Dai Liang (aka, A Bu) is a Beijing-based prodigy with remarkable potential and virtuosic piano skills. Marc Vincent, President of China's division of Sennheiser took note of the then thirteen year old pianist performing at a Bejiing festival. A Bu, who began playing at the age of four, quickly found himself matched up with Grammy-winning engineer, Jakob Haendel to produce his first album, 88 Tones of Black and White (Sennheiser Media, 2015). Covering the likes of Coltrane, Monk and Bill Evans, among others, A Bu’s debut was rarity not just because of the young pianist’s disproportionate talent but also because of the paucity of jazz recordings from China. A Bu’s talent as a composer will be on display shortly, with the release of a new trio outing, Butterflies Fly In Pairs, featuring his original compositions as well as covers of two of his inspirations, Chick Corea, Michel Camilo. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You studied classical piano at the Central Conservatory of Music, China's leading music school in the Xicheng District of Beijing. How and where did your interest in jazz develop?
A Bu: I began to play the piano since age 4. Until age 9, I had only played classical music. However, my father is a music fan. Not only in classical, but my father also encouraged me to listen more to different music such as jazz, Blues, Rock, etc. At age 9, I entered the Central Conservatory of Music to continue my classical piano education. At the same time, my father introduced me to the famous Chinese jazz pianist Mr. Golden Buddua. I had a great time with him, and he started to teach me things about jazz since then. In the way I see it, Michel Petrucciani and Michel Camilo truly inspired my love to jazz. Chicago Jazz Magzine: How and when did the jazz scene develop in your country?
A Bu: Jazz had developed in China before I born... but I would say during late 80s and 90s some musicians have started playing Jazz, although they didn't have jazz education in school, but most of them were self-learned. About how it developed, I think it just because there were many musicians who like listening jazz so they began to play some jazz by themselves. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Saxophonist Liu Yuan has been referred to as the "Father of jazz in China". He has talked about growth in the popularity of jazz since the 1990s. Yet there appears to be only the one previously mentioned Beijing club dedicated to jazz alone. Is that a misconception?
A Bu: Mr. Liu Yuan’s contribution to Chinese jazz industry is uncountable. He and a few other musicians in China led the jazz growth in the country over years. Of course, Mr. Liu and East Shore are not the only jazz appearances in China. There are some jazz and blues music clubs formed around the 90s such as the famous Big Easy and the CD Blues Café. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are too young to have seen the changes in the acceptance of jazz that Liu Yuan speaks of, but what are your perceptions of the future of jazz going forward in China?
A Bu: I am very honored to be in a part of Chinese jazz development. Now, I could proudly say that there are already many great and talented Chinese jazz musicians who have been developed and shown on the international stage. In my opinion, the growth of jazz in China would not be stopped since more and more people in the country have started to notice this great music style and its importance to the whole music industry. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Would you say that jazz music is broadly popular in China?
A Bu: Jazz has grew in China in the past 10 years, there are many festivals holding in China such as JZ Festival, Nine Gates Jazz Festival and many more. There are a lot of good musicians, too. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What styles of music have factored into jazz in China (such as regional folk music, classical music)?
A Bu: Chinese people like to listen Classical music, there are many good conservatories that give professional music education. Also, popular music and rock (a little bit) are quite developed in China. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there regional instruments (one’s that would be less familiar to US listeners) that are used in your country’s jazz music?
A Bu: Well, I've heard my Chinese jazz teacher's band playing with Chinese flute and Zhongruan, a traditional Chinese folk instrument. [Note: the zhongruan is a plucked string instrument with a circular sound box. Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you come to form your trio with drummer Shao Ha Ha and bassist Ma Kai? Had you played with them in the past?
A Bu: My teacher and I both thought it would be a good idea for me to form my own band, so I could play and perform with other musicians since jazz needs you to play! The trio with Shao HaHa and Ma Kai is my first band. I had played with HaHa once during a jam session in Beijing. However, my teacher introduced me Ma Kai to be my bassist. Chicago Jazz Magazine: On your debut album 88 Tones of Black and White, you cover Bill Evans’ "Very Early". Kai and Ha Ha expertly replicate the Chuck Israels and Paul Motian parts from the Evans trio. What was the process like as you recorded that piece?
A Bu: “Very Early” is one my favorite standard tunes, and I loved both Bill Evans’ and Michel Petrucciani playing of that tune. It has been almost 4 years since I recorded that track, so I am not sure if I could clearly remember the moment. At least, I remember that I started the piece with a similar intro that Petrucciani played in his recording. Later on, we were just improvising based on Evans’ beautiful harmonization. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve interpreted some revered U.S. jazz icons on your first CD. Given that you were fifteen at the time, was it at all intimidating to be taking on the works of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie?
A Bu:If I do not mistake, I was thirteen when I recorded the album. Actually, my band members and I chose the tunes together when we knew that we are going to make an album. In fact, it was not a difficult time to play those legends’ famous standards because we have clearly arranged our own sections and rehearsed a lot, so we had an easy time recording them. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You were regularly playing sessions at the CD-Blues Café in Beijing before traveling to the U.S. for the New York Summer Music Jazz Camp at SUNY College. How did that opportunity come to be?
A Bu: I did travel to U.S. for a jazz camp, but it is not SMJC at SUNY. It was the New York Summer Music Festival music camp in Oneonta. There, I took lessons with the jazz pianist Randy Ingram. I usually go to jam session in places in Beijing such as CD-Blues Cafe, East Shore Jazz Café, and Jiang Hu Bar. Regarding the opportunity to go to U.S., I’ve been traveled to Kansas, San Francisco and New York to be in summer camps and study with private teachers. Regarding the opportunity of going to the NYSMF, a friend of my parents introduced us the festival. Later, I submitted my recording to the festival. Luckily, I passed the audition. Chicago Jazz Magazine: The NYSMF was also your first trip to New York. What was that experience like?
A Bu: In fact, the camp took place in Oneonta, not really in the city. However, I did go into New York City to visit, and I had chances to listen jazz in the Blue Note and Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center. I liked New York City very much. Absolutely, New York City is the capital of all of the cultures and arts in the world. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Would you say that your musical influences had changed after that first exposure to the U.S.?
A Bu: I am sure the different experiences in the States inspired my imagination and inspiration, but it did not mainly changed my musical influence. Honestly, my musical influence is strongly related to my daily life. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had played a live duet with Chick Corea when you were, I believe, 14 years of age. At that time, were you aware of his stature in the jazz world?
A Bu: The Duet with Chick Corea happened in the 2013 JZ Festival’s Opening Concert. Chick and I had dinner before his solo concert. However, we did not talk about playing together. During his 2nd half of the concert, he called my name and invited me on stage. We played an improvisation in A minor. Definitely, I had knew that Chick’s importance in the jazz world. Additionally, I had listened many of his recordings before. I was so honored to be called by him. At the moment, I certainly felt that I was in an incredible dream. Later, I also met Chick in the Blue Note serval times. We have always been in touch since then. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Sennheiser’s Marc Vincent first heard you play in 2012 at the Nine Gates festival in Beijing and that was the beginning of the relationship that led to your first album. The Grammy winning producer, Jakob Händel began working with you in 2013. Did it feel like your musical career was moving in hyper-speed?
A Bu: Of course, it was an amazing experience to me and my career. Obviously, I did not like the first album too much since I was too young when I recorded it. However, the experience with all of those great people who helped me to form my first album was unforgettable. It surely moved my career to another level, and it was the first time for me to perform and work with a professional and international team. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had once mentioned that the jazz scene in China really began to develop during the 1980s and 1990s. Are there now formal jazz education programs in China or does it remain mostly self-taught?
A Bu: Now, there are some schools and education programs in China where people could take lessons with mentors. In my opinion, there are not many formal jazz divisions in China have been developed yet. However, I had never been studied jazz in any formal schools before I came to the U.S., but I am sure some education programs have already opened for Chinese and all of the jazz lovers in China to learn and know more about jazz. Chicago Jazz Magazine: The East Shore Jazz Café has gained some global recognition as the top-tier jazz venue in Beijing, bringing in some major talent from Europe and the U.S. Have you played there? If so, was that a special experience for you?
A Bu: Definitely, the East Shore Jazz Café is significant to the Chinese jazz industry. I feel very honored that I have been invited to perform with my band and jam with local musicians there. Playing in the East Shore Jazz Café has always been a great and comfortable time for me. Also, I still remember the experience playing with the great American jazz saxophonist Antonio Hart. We played in the afternoon after his rehearsal, and he tried to let me get the real FEEL of jazz. After that hour, we successfully built our relation and became each other’s good friend. It was such an incredible moment to me. Chicago Jazz Magazine: What music are you currently listening to?
A Bu: I listen to different kinds of music. The music are in my player now: Music of Nikolai Kapustin, Glenn Gould (plays Bach), Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bud Powell, Chick Corea, Michel Camilo and Cui Jian, the Chinese Rock Legend. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are working on a follow up to 88 Tones of Black and White. What can listeners expect from your next album?
A Bu: I believe listeners would be able to experience more about my own musical ideas. My following album “Butterflies Fly in Pairs” will be featuring nine of my original compositions and an arrangement on the famous Chinese theme “Butterflies Fly in Pairs”.
Karl Ackermann is a freelance write who contributes to Chicago Jazz Magazine