Dai Liang, aka A Bu: Beijing Prodigy

Karl Ackermann By

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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.
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