Q&A With Dreadlocked Saxophone Prodigy Li Gaoyang Ahead of His Aug 12 East Shore Gig

Though skeptics might dismiss jazz as mere noodling, or a genre dominated by self-indulgent players who solo to no end, Li Gaoyang would beg to differ. The hotly touted saxophone player has been praised by many critics for giving ample stage time to his bandmates, despite the growing buzz surrounding him that has lead many to call him China's next jazz giant.

He also bucks misconceptions about the genre with his fashion sense, sporting long dreadlocks and casual attire that might be more reminiscent of rock or reggae than the more classic aesthetic of many jazz musicians. What's more: Li is only 23 years old, but has already released several albums, studied under some of his heroes, and achieved other feats. Below he tells us more about his rise ahead of his performance at East Shore tomorrow.

An article in All About Jazz describes your performing: "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." How did you learn the importance of that?
I think, when I'm playing, listening to everyone on the stage is very important. Because that can help a band really play together. So, leaving a space for others is the best way to help your own playing, in a way.

You began playing saxophone at the age of eight, and your parents were very supportive. Can you tell me more about what motivated you at such an early age?
Well, I started studying music when I was four years old. I began with the violin. Then, I switched to the saxophone because I didn't like the violin. When I was 12, I started practicing for 10 hours every day. Nobody forced me. I loved it!

Who are some of your biggest influences?
Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Mike Brecker, Dave Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone and Steve Grossman. They have all influenced my music. I try to study them carefully because jazz is inherently like a tree. It must come from the roots and spread all the way out to the leaves.

You studied with George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi, who have long been considered great saxophone players. How did that opportunity come about?
They are both good friends of mine. I studied in Scandinavia for few years and met them after one of their concerts. They were both really nice. And their teaching has helped me open my mind.

I've also played and toured with other masters, like Dave Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, Adam Nussbaum. There's so much to learn when you're playing with legends like them.

What's next for you?
I’m working on a fusion of Chinese music and instruments with jazz. My next record will explore that, and I hope to bring that music to the world on tour.

The Li Gaoyang trio will perform at East Shore tomorrow, August 12, at 10pm. For more information, click here.

Photos: All About Jazz, Jody Jazz, courtesy of Li Gaoyang


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