Carving a creative career is not an easy task. This is Li Liu’s international journey.
How does a young woman from Taiwan decide on a career path? Especially one who is curious, intelligent, musical. There are so many choices today it can be overwhelming. Check out your friends on social media: they all seem to be doing well. That’s pressure.
Li Liu grew up in Taiwan. Her father is a successful businessman, her mother a music teacher. As in many cultures, the arts seem esoteric, uncertain. Not a sure path.
Liu was always drawn to music of all sorts. She had obvious talent and played saxophone in an award-winning band when she was young. For her undergrad, she studied Chinese literature, which could perhaps lead to a teaching career. But music beckoned. Especially American music: blues, gospel and jazz.
Jazz is an art form that grew out of the blues in the American South, which came originally from Africa. It still has the raw emotion of the blues but is enhanced by the musicianship of European instruments. Many people don’t know that the great classical composers like Beethoven and Mozart were also masters of improvisation, a tradition that is carried on today in jazz.
Growing up in Taiwan, Liu was exposed to classical music, popular music and jazz. The pop music scene in Asia was big and promised a high profile in a conventional career promoted by television. At a young age she was on that path.
But it was the musicianship and soul of jazz that resonated with Liu. One of the highlights of her life took place in Taiwan, singing onstage with Bobby McFerrin, considered one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.
After becoming a professional jazz singer in her native Taiwan, Liu studied vocals in the master’s program University of North Texas, which included training in opera and other styles as well as jazz. It is one of the top programs of its kind in the world.
Her career gradually allowed her to blend western and eastern traditions. Jazz is nothing if not a mixed bag, a tradition that has varied over the decades from Dixieland, based on music played at funerals, to be-bop, Big Band, fusion and many other styles.
Liu speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese, Haka and now English. Haka is an ethnic minority that still experiences prejudice, which gives her a deeper appreciation of musical styles that date back to the age of slavery.
Immersed in Chinese musical traditions, Liu and can create new compositions that bring these influences to jazz, the ultimate western musical art form.
At UNT she met guitarist Ben Holt, who is from Nova Scotia, Canada. This brought another element to her artistic as well as her personal life. Holt had graduated from St. Francis University in Nova Scotia, which connected him with UNT. Visiting Canada with Holt, Li tapped into the rural traditions of forest and sea, as well as Canada’s thriving jazz scene.
Together Liu and Holt formed Song Dynasty, an eclectic band that allows them to blend jazz and Chinese elements. Musicians come from Japan, the US and Canada, as well as the Latin countries of Central and South America.
The name Song Dynasty comes from one of the most innovative periods in Chinese history, creating typography and the compass, as well as a rich cultural legacy of scholarship and literature. It is a fitting name for an innovative, international collaboration.
Liu’s experience includes singing in jazz bands throughout the southern US, as well as in Cross Church, a gospel church outside Dallas. With Holt, she has toured Taiwan, the Pacific Northwest of the United States, as well as eastern Canada.
Song Dynasty has matured as a group. They have released Searching, a sophisticated album that blends many musical styles. It resonates with jazz purists and the international Chinese community.
You can find the new album here on Google Play
In a world that seems increasingly fractured across political and economic fault lines, Song Dynasty is a breath of fresh air. It has become the vehicle for a talented young woman who faced many pressures and learned to forge her own path.
This now includes Canada. Her career takes her to the jazz scene there. When she is not rehearsing or singing, she likes to sneak away for a walk in the woods or a paddle on the Bay of Fundy, a dramatic seascape that is home to the highest tides in the world.
Eventually she wants to return to Asia. The jazz scene is booming there. But for now Texas is home and she’s surrounded by talented musicians from around the world. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
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