Dai Liang, aka A Bu: Beijing Prodigy

Karl Ackermann By

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You rarely find young people playing jazz in China.
—Dai Liang aka A Bu
In 1950, in the wake of World War II and the early years of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong founded the Central Conservatory of Music as a consolidation of several musical institutions. Located in Beijing, the school resides on the former site of the seventeenth century residence of one Prince Yixuan. The campus has developed into a global institution offering advanced degrees in a setting that mixes original building from the Qing Dynasty with state-of-the-art music facilities and dormitories. The school was once the domain of the elite of the CCP and, even among that segment of society, only the highest academic tier (and the well-connected) gained admittance. It now offers degrees in fifteen disciples, houses seven institutions of research and publishing and features honorary professors such as Isaac Stern, Itzak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Jessye Norman. Among the conservatory's notable alumni is the young classical and jazz pianist/composer, Dai Liang, aka, A Bu. He entered the conservatory at the age of nine and though still a teenager, his poise and talent are that of an experienced veteran.

Born and raised in a small neighborhood in the eastern part of Beijing, pianist Dai Liang had an unusually early exposure to jazz given its relative scarcity in his native China. Though his father was a fan of jazz music, there was limited availability of recordings and an even more limited opportunity to hear jazz music being performed live. Still, Dai became accustomed to hearing his father's restricted collection from a very early age.

A note about naming conventions in China and about Dai's name(s) in particular: A Chinese name is written with the surname first, followed by the given name so the pianist's family name is "Dai" and his given name "Liang," typical of a Chinese tradition is a two-syllable reference to an aspirational characteristic or quality. In this case, the given name is roughly translated as "Good" or "Fine" and if applied to Dai's musical talent, it is a substantial understatement. Then there is Dai's alter ego, A Bu. We sat down to lunch in Manhattan this past September, a few blocks from where he currently studies at Julliard. One of my first questions regarded his use of a performing name that sounds neither Chinese nor metaphorical. The story behind the name turns out to be strictly familial as it is simply a nickname that his father had given him because of a similar sound that Dai would make as a young child. That designation could not have come long before Dai first sat down at the keyboard.

"I began to play the piano [at] age four. Until age nine, 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 nine, 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..." Dai's reference to "Mr. Golden Buddha" denotes China's most respected jazz pianist, Kong Hongwei, and his Golden Buddha Jazz Orchestra. A favorite of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, his group has played festivals throughout China and Eastern Europe using a combination of ancient Chinese and Western musical instruments. The music of the Golden Buddha Jazz Orchestra itself bears only elemental resemblances to Western jazz while incorporating funk, pop, regional folk and dance in a global mélange of influences. As Dai points out, ..."I've heard my Chinese jazz teacher's band playing with Chinese flute and Zhongruan (a traditional Chinese folk instrument)."

Dai's own connection with Western jazz is much more direct, whether in his covers or original compositions. While he credits Kong Hongwei as a powerful musical influence, Dai also states, "In the way I see it, Michel Petrucciani and Michel Camilo truly inspired my love to jazz." He was able to hone his performance skills at the East Shore Jazz Café, a top-tier jazz venue in Beijing, known for bringing in some major talent from Europe and the U.S. Of playing that club, he says, "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."

It was Dai's piano instructor at the Central Conservatory that suggested the young pianist move beyond his classical music training to jazz. To Dai, playing jazz comes more naturally than classical though he acknowledges that it is ..."difficult to know how to train for jazz." Nevertheless, by the age of fourteen, he was playing with the Beijing Senlin Big Band, also known as the Beijing Jungle Big Band. If the name raises eyebrows in the West, it is—again—a function of Chinese naming where the 'lin' is interpreted as "jungle."

China is rarely thought of as a source of jazz due to the less than healthy existence of the genre and in the past ten years or so, only a handful of "jazz" recordings have come out of the more open environment of Hong Kong. That music would be more accurately classified as pop or "Cantopop" (Cantonese popular music) as Chinese music critics dubbed the sound. However, there have been breakout moments such as Wynton Marsalis playing the irregularly scheduled Beijing Jazz Festival amongst many more unfamiliar artists.

The development of jazz in China seemed rooted in self-experimental entrepreneurship. Dai says that jazz has grown ..."in China in the past 10 years, there are many festivals...such as JZ Festival, Nine Gates Jazz Festival and many more... 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."

At the 2012 Nine Gates festival in Beijing, sponsored by the media giant, Sennshieser (long-known for their microphones and headphones), Dai/A Bu sat in for a pianist who was unable to make it to the performance. President of Sennheiser Greater China, Marc Vincent, first heard Dai play here and that was the beginning of the relationship that led to his debut album on Sennheiser's own label. Dai/A Bu was already fully formed as a pianist and with the professional support was able to cut a recording that earned him a sponsored exchange spot in New York studying with the aforementioned saxophonist Antonio Hart. Prior to becoming a student at Julliard, Dai had other encounters in New York; heady experiences for a young teenager from Bejiing.

Dai relates some of those US adventures: "I did travel to U.S. for a jazz camp...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. I've traveled to Kansas, San Francisco and New York to be in summer camps and study with private teachers... 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. Regarding the opportunity of going to the NYSMF, a friend of my parents introduced us [to] the festival. Later, I submitted my recording to the festival. Luckily, I passed the audition." "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."

During the 2013 JZ Festival, Dai had the opportunity to dine with Chick Corea the night before Corea's solo performance. Dai says, ..."we did not talk about playing together. During his second half of the concert, he called my name and invited me on stage. We played an improvisation in A minor...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." It was about that time that Sennshieser's Vincent was guiding Dai into the studio to begin work on his trio debut 88 Tones of Black and White under his pseudonym, A Bu.

A Bu's trio consists of drummer Shao Ha Ha and Ma Kai on bass. The trio works through several John Coltrane covers, a couple from pianists Michel Petrucciani, Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk and a number of other standards. Bu opens with Petrucianno's "Miles Davis Licks" and more than does it justice, building up to fast-paced romp but without Petrucianni's over-the-top swagger. The same can be said for the Bu's rendition of the French pianist's "September 2nd" in that Bu's restraint actually adds value to the composition. "Very Early" is a spot-on version of Evans' recording with Kai and Ha Ha expertly reproducing the Chuck Israels and Paul Motian parts.

Bu inserts a tasteful cross-genre interpretation of J.S. Bach's "Invention No. 15" before moving on to an animated reading of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." The Monk/Cootie Williams "Round Midnight" is creatively opened as a lullaby-turned slow ballad with hints of the blues. It's a uniquely masterful treatment of one of the most over-recorded compositions in music. Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" and "Impression" give Kai and Ha Ha space to show their own considerable skills even as Bu drives at breakneck speed.

There are trio and solo versions of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," both with masterful improvisations from Bu and demonstrating his ability to blend advanced methods and empathy for the original composition. Where he plays with speed—and he often does—it is not for the sake of pyrotechnics. These are exacting and tightly controlled improvisations of well-established and exceptional composed material. 88 Tones of Black and White is a two-disc set, the second disc being a DVD of live performances including a piano duet with Chick Corea. Bu's potential is almost off the charts and as a trio, he Kai and Ha Ha are already on a plane that many musicians never reach.

A Bu's debut was a 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 is now on display as well, with the release of a new trio outing, Butterflies Fly In Pairs, featuring his original compositions as well as covers of two of his piano inspirations, Chick Corea and Michel Camilo.

A Bu's original rhythm section, two talented, local Beijing musicians have been replaced with American studio musicians who bring a wider range of experience to the mix. The resourceful drummer Ryan J. Lee has broad experience ranging from work with David Grusin to the Kansas City Symphony and some gospel music for good measure. Bassist Tom Kennedy has performed or recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Al Di Meola and Randy Brecker to name just a few. The notable saxophonist Antonio Hart, with whom A Bu had studied in New York, appears on two of the eleven tracks.

A Bu's own compositions are bookended by two versions of the title track. Based on Peixun Chen's Cantonese folk theme, the opening version is fast-paced with changing tempos and complex patterns that highlight A Bu's advanced techniques. "Forever Suite Part I" is more solidly a pop-jazz tune while Part II of that title bears no resemblance. Here A Bu imparts an old world European feel in sharp contrast to the album's overall contemporary style. Hart makes the first of his two appearances on "With Mind I," an improvisational swing while "With Mind II" introduces David Watson—half of a duo known as the Chop Horns—on flute. Cecilia Stalin supplies the album's sole vocal on the ballad "Memories of Love." "The Last Trip" brings back Hart on a piece that recalls the groove-oriented style of Bob James as does "For Kurt." Bassist Kennedy has an appealing extended solo on the lyrical "Rainchel," another pop improvisation.

A Bu is clearly the featured player on Butterflies Fly In Pairs with Kennedy and Lee assuming more traditional rhythm section roles. The young pianist shows considerable maturity in his willingness to hold back on flamboyance for the sake of musicality. Having solidly established himself as a musician on his debut release, he now adds an estimable credential as a composer. It is easy to imagine that in the near future, A Bu's name will be mentioned along with some of the best jazz pianists of modern times. Hearing this album is like getting in on the ground floor.

Dai's growing reputation in jazz hasn't caused him to abandon his classical roots nor to avoid combining the genres. On November 21, 2016, he will be performing at the Moscow House of Music with saxophonist Igor Butman and his Moscow Jazz Orchestra, and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra led by Russian conductor Vladimir Spivakov. On December 29th and 30th, he will be joining the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra for a two-night Gershwin show in Belgrade, Serbia. Dai/A Bu is also in the planning stages of his next recording. Likely to be a mix of original compositions and standards, some arraignments for strings may be included.

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