A Bu

And the Child Pointed to the Piano

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Jazz from China? Thus far, it has largely been under the radar. But with A Bu, that could soon change. The young pianist has everything he needs for a successful carreer. A portrait of an artist forced to grow up quickly.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: A Bu
„He was four years old when his father took him to a music shop for the first time.“

The term child prodigy is complicated and should be used sparingly. It is a label attached frequently to young people with talent -- those who have significant potential, excellent ideas or early accomplishments. Journalists are particularly anamored of the appellation. But ideas can go wrong and potential can go dry. In sports, in the movies and in music there are vast numbers of erstwhile child prodigies who are no longer quite as prodigious. As such, it is fair to ask what path the very young A Bu will take, an artist who is without a doubt among the most exciting jazz prodigies around.

A Beijing native, A Bu's real name is Dai Liang, and he is still a teenager. He was four years old when his father took him to a music shop for the first time. The little boy pointed to the biggest and most impressive object on display, a black box with white keys that was much larger than he was. That's how A Bu began playing piano, and he hasn't stopped since.

At age seven, A Bu auditioned at the music conservatory in Beijing – and was rejected. They said he was too young and that he should come back later. One can imagine how his ambitious parents, and the boy himself, took the veto. In progress-oriented China, rejection is akin to insult. But A Bu continued studying the piano on his own and he returned to the conservatory when he was nine. This time, he was accepted. He was simply too good to send away a second time. Perhaps he was a genius. At the very least, he had great promise.

A Bu

Since then, A Bu has systematically continued his education, learning theory along with Latin and classical music. If he finds something interesting, he absorbs it like a sponge – a model student, but for all the right reasons. A Bu, the autodidact, also taught himself to play guitar, saxophone and bass, but he still wanted more. He began playing small café gigs, but was soon playing larger concerts.

Perhaps he is a genius.

With percussionist Shao Haha and bassist Ma Kai, he created the A Bu Jazz Trio Band. It was the product of his intense desire to play in a group, but it can also be seen as an emulation of the greats in the pantheon of jazz, all of whom had their own trios. As such, it was an expression of self-confidence, even though A Bu says he's more interested in spacial dynamics. "You can learn from each other and push each other to improve," he says. Together, the three play elegant jazz standards, but inject them with exotic rhythms and classical themes. The full palette can be heard on the trio's fantastic album "88 Tones of Black and White," which includes pieces by Coltrane and Thelonious Monk alongside Petrucianni and Bach.

In conversation, A Bu carefully weighs his words. He thinks about what he wants to say, speaks slowly, corrects himself and falls silent. A Bu trusts the notes he plays, but he doesn't yet trust the words he speaks. Not completely, at least. An interview with him is the antipode to his concerts, which are wild, fast and precise. "He really enjoys playing for an audience," says his German producer Jakob Händel.

A Bu recording in New York
„He spends six hours a day at the piano.“

China is not exactly known as the heartland of jazz. The genre long had difficulty gaining a foothold in the country, where it was considered elitist and niche. That is slowly changing. There is the Beijing Jazz Festival, there are large concert halls that host jazz concerts and there are smaller jazz cafés springing up. And now, there is A Bu. He spends six hours a day at the piano to prepare himself for the competition that is waiting for him outside China. "You always learn something new," A Bu says. "Even the legends practiced every day when they were older to try out new things."

One year ago, he moved to New York to study at The Juilliard School and recorded his second album at Avatar Studios. It sounds more mature than his debut, which is an astounding realization given A Bu's tender age. Perhaps he was inspired by the city, which, after all, gave birth to great, legendary jazz – the melodies of Joe Henderson and Oscar Peterson. A Bu must now change his thinking and measure himself against different benchmarks. In the studio or rehearsal room, he is almost always the youngest one present. "But sometimes, we completely forget the age difference," he says. Suddenly, he finds himself playing with high-caliber artists like Antonio Hart, David Berkman, Jeb Patton, Randy Ingram and Jeremy Siskind.

The new album was mixed in the Jazzanova Recording Studio in Berlin. A Bu is a perfectionist: The sound quality must be outstanding, otherwise he won’t grant his approval. And of course, the fact that his second album became a global undertaking involving studios in two different countries is a message to the industry. Axel Reinemer, head of JRS in Berlin, remembers working with him: "A Bu has precise notions of how his music should sound. He composes everything himself and was constantly present during the mixing process. When he sits down at the piano, he immerses himself in his own world and calls forth voices that make it hard to believe that it is a 15-year-old playing.” A Bu’s inspiration was so great, and the sound of the grand piano so optimal, that on the fourth day, the teenager recorded another piano album. Unplanned. Solo. Just like that.

A Bu must now change his thinking and measure himself against different benchmarks. That will become the measure of his success.

His music has long since become warm and virtuoso and he makes his improv solos sound easy. If you close your eyes and just listen, you think you can imagine you're hearing an experienced, accomplished master of the genre. But then you open them and see this teenager, young on paper and with an even younger face, sitting at the piano. Nevertheless, this year in Montreux, the holy temple of jazz, he won the Parmigiani Jazz Solo Piano Competition. The prize is seen as an important measure of excellence in the scene. A Bu's career has pushed him to grow up quickly, much more rapidly than others.

He is, in fact, no longer a child prodigy. But his piano playing skill remains prodigious.

A Bu at Avatar Studios