Li Gao Yang: Locks, Stock and Smoking Barrel
Li's talent is a combination of long years of dedication, sacrifice and an evident natural affinity for this music. It's also cause for a degree of frustration when he plays with other Chinese jazz musicians: "The young musicians are not so good," he says frankly. "Maybe their technique is very good but they don't know what I'm playing; they can't follow me. I can't play with them. They play like rhythm machines, but if you change the rhythm or play outside the box they can't follow," he says matter-of-factly. "They should study and learn their instruments better," Li says, by way of constructive criticism.
"The older musicians can follow," Li expands, "because they have a lot of experience. I only tend to play with Chinese jazz musicians above the age of 30 in Beijing." So, who are the Chinese jazz musicians to watch out for? "Hu Hao, the bassist in my band, is a great musician" says Li. "My drummer, Shao Haha" he adds. "Before he played jazz he was a rock 'n' roll drummer. He has studied with Izumi Koga, a famous Japanese drummer in Beijing. Most drummers who play jazz in China are taught by him. Koga's played and taught for many, many years and he's the best drummer in Beijing."
Li's quartet has a residency in Beijing's CD Jazz Café: "I play there every Wednesday with my Chinese quartet. It's the oldest jazz club in Beijing," says Li. "It's a venue for people who like jazz and blues. Some westerner expats also come." As Li describes it, the venue seems to have a nice informality about it and openness to visiting musicians: "We have a jam session before we finish the second set," says Li. "Sometimes visiting bands come and sit in, guys from Denmark, Sweden, Poland, England or the US. Maybe they're in Beijing for the festival but they also come for smaller gigs. The jazz gigs in Beijing are in small clubs or bars because not that many people want to go to a theater to see jazz."
Li's quartet played a mostly traditional set at the Beishan International Jazz Festival, with Li's original compositions, Sonny Stitt's "Eternal Triangle" and, towards the end of the set, a couple of jazz-funk crowd pleasers: the self-penned "222" and Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?" It was, says Li, a fairly typical set. "Because we're playing in China we play more traditional jazz. We also need to play some funky tunes or some pop tunes like Stevie Wonder," he explains. "They might not know the song but they can appreciate the melody. If you play too much stuff like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins you will turn people off in China. We can play a few songs like that, but we need to include some funky tunes."
Li has had the opportunity to play abroad in Japan and Europe, where the differences in approach to jazz were striking for him: "In Japan they have very good training," says Li. "They're very serious; very serious to study anything. They know the tradition very well, but in Europe a lot of new guys are classically influenced and I can't play with them. In Japan more musicians play hard bop and bebop. Everyone must know bebop in Japan. In Europe, I don't know if that's the case."
In Tokyo, Li had the opportunity to catch pianist Chick Corea's trio at the city's famous Blue Note jazz club: "That was with [bassist] Christian McBride and [drummer] Brian Blade. It was amazing," says Li. Even more amazing for Li, was the chance to see his idol, Sonny Rollins, perform at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 2011. Not only that, but Li got to meet the Saxophone Colossus in person: "It was amazing-I was really lucky," acknowledges Li. "Before I went to his hotel to meet him I had lunch with [bassist] Bob Cranshaw and [drummer] Kobie Watkins." Rollin's band had watched Li perform as well, and they paid him a very nice complement: "They said my style is like Johnny Griffin," recalls Li.
The icing on the cake for Li was meeting Rollins, one of the most influential-and incombustible-tenor saxophonists in jazz's history. What did Rollins say to Li? "Keep blowin," says Li.
With relatively few opportunities to play jazz in China, Li may have to consider moving abroad if he wants to raise his game: " It's not really possible," he says, "because there are too many amazing musicians already in New York or London." So, for the time being at least Li is staying put in Beijing: "It's easier for me to play jazz in China," admits Li, "though next year maybe I will play in the US, Copenhagen, Taipei and Japan."