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Li Gao Yang: Locks, Stock and Smoking Barrel

Ian Patterson By

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With dreadlocks tumbling over his shoulders, Li Gao Yang already cuts a striking figure. When he's on stage blowing his tenor saxophone and leading his quartet with quiet assurance, the impact is all the greater. Chinese jazz stars are few and far between, at home or abroad, but already this unassuming musician from Beijing has appeared on television and made the Chinese press on numerous occasions. He's also had the honor of opening both the Hong Kong international Jazz Festival 2011 and the Ninegates Jazz Festival in Beijing in September, 2012. There's a good reason for all the attention, because Li plays the saxophone with an authority all too rare in someone of just 18 years of age.

The day after the Li Gao Yang Quartet's performance at the Beishan International Jazz Festival in Zhuhai, southern China, Li was in relaxed mood, sitting at a long table in the 200 year-old Beishan temple/theater site, as he spoke candidly of his art. Li conversed in reasonable English, which didn't need the services of the attendant translator. Like his playing, Li's speech is lean and direct, and unadorned with unnecessary language.

This was the second time Li had played the BIJF, following his appearance the previous year, and judging by the warmth with which he was greeted when he took to the stage, a significant proportion of the audience seemed to remember him. That's not surprising, as his one-hour set the night before demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that his is, at least in this part of the world, a rather special talent. Tumbling bebop lines and rhythmically driving hard bop were the staples of a set where Li displayed impressive command of his instrument. His technical ability was clear from the very first solo, but Li is a musician first and a technician second; his lyricism was notable, and, like true leaders, he was more than generous with the space he shared with drummer Cameron Reid, bassist Rickard Malmsten and electric pianist Jim Schneider. His set revealed his passion, his influences, and his flexibility in giving his audience a little of what they want.

Surprisingly, given the obvious empathy and intuition between the four musicians, this was only the third time they had all played together: "It's only our third gig, but we've practiced together many times," says Li, "so we all know each other very well."

Li's musical journey began at the tender age of four, when, with his parents' encouragement, he started to learn the violin. Strings and bows, as it turned out however, weren't really for him: "I was attracted to woodwind instruments much more than stringed instruments," says Li, who around the age of seven became besotted with the saxophone after hearing it on TV one day. Li's parents were completely supportive of his newfound passion and it was a single lane highway from that point on.

Li's commitment to his instrument was total: "I used to practice ten hours every day," he says in a neutral tone, as though this were the most natural thing in the world, "but now I have a lot of business to deal, with so I only practice about two hours a day." Li is a throwback to the old school of jazz: "I like black music," he states. "Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and [as one notable exception] Michael Brecker. I like alto players like Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean, Sonny Stitt and [another non-African-American] Phil Woods . For free jazz I like Eric Dolphy."

Of these illustrious names only Brecker began in an era post-bebop and hard bop. Do any of the contemporary saxophonists excite Li? Steve Coleman perhaps? "The only Coleman[s] I like are Hawkins and Ornette," he replies without hesitation. Then, after a brief moment's thought he adds: "There are a few I like, but they are the more traditional players. I like [alto saxophonist] Antonio Hart, because he has a traditional sound." Hart played with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in some of his final concerts, and has also collaborated with pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Dave Holland, so when Li took lessons from Hart when the Baltimore saxophonist was in Beijing, he was tapping in to that sort of pedigree.

Li has clearly fond memories of his encounter with Hart: "I played a concert with him in a bar in Beijing called Eastern Shore. It was amazing." Hart had measured praise for Li: "He said I have a good foundation," says Li. This comment was surely meant to motivate Li to stretch himself, to keep pushing himself: "He advised me to practice more," recalls Li, "and to do everything slowly." Li has certainly taken a lot on board in a relatively short time. Technically and intuitively, he has ability beyond his years.


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