Chien Chien Lu And The Roy Ayers Effect

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Chien Chien Lu has toured and recorded with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.

(Photo: Kasia Idzkowska)

Before 2012, Chien Chien Lu had never heard jazz. Having spent her childhood taking piano lessons and playing marimba in prominent orchestras, the Taiwanese-born vibraphonist was well-studied in contemporary percussion, but her musical diet was that of her country’s—primarily classical, Taiwanese traditional music, Chinese pop and K-pop.

Less than a decade later, Lu has released her debut jazz record, The Path—an exploratory work that draws on her background, as well as a love of fellow vibraphonist Roy Ayers.

As Lu, 31, puts it, The Path only was possible after randomly tuning in to a jazz radio station while she was still living in Taiwan.

“I was just like, ‘What is this music, it’s so amazing?’ she recalled.

Riveted by the music’s freedom, Lu sought a jazz piano teacher while working on her master’s in music performance Taipei National University of the Arts. And by 2015, she set her sights on Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to earn another degree, this time in jazz studies.

“I remember walking [in Philadelphia] and, I couldn’t get used to the sounds around me,” Lu said. “People would drive by me and all they listen to is rap, gospel, blues, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really in a different country.’”

Lu landed in America with little experience in jazz, but armed with perfect pitch, which she said is expected of Taiwanese musicians. She could see the notes in her mind when another player soloed—but she struggled with the laid-back, swing feel. Still, Lu proved to be a quick study, particularly once Jeremy Pelt took her under his wing. Lu first met the trumpeter in 2017 at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, where he was on faculty, and a bit later, he asked her to record on his 2019 release, Jeremy Pelt: The Artist, and tour with his group.

Aided by the strength of Lu’s band, pulled partially from Pelt’s ensemble, feel is one of The Path’s strengths. On songs like “We Live In Brooklyn Baby,” a reworking of the 1972 Ayers track, Lu grooves like it’s second nature.

“I would have never thought she was so influenced by Roy Ayers. I was like, ‘OK!’” said bassist Richie Goods, who befriended Lu while on tour with Pelt and offered to produce The Path. “I started asking her about what she’s doing with her music. Hearing her night after night—just tearing it up—I said, ‘You need to do a record.’”

With Goods’ encouragement, Lu found her voice, beautifully highlighted on The Path by three interludes where she talks about her background and path to jazz. In particular, Lu’s distinct vision crystallizes on her jazz rendition of “Blossom In A Stormy Night,” a Taiwanese Hokkien folk song about a woman who turns to prostitution after her fiancé leaves her. The track begins with Lu’s mother singing the 1934 tune and then builds to the bandleader adding in the tender melody and an inspired solo.

Lu said she’s always liked the song, because it shows how far women have come. And, as Lu mingles her past and her newfound mastery of the jazz tradition, it poignantly highlights how far she’s come herself—and where she’ll go next.

“I feel like I have a clear direction for the next [album],” Lu said. “I want to add more traditional elements that really relate it to me when I was growing up. My elements, my roots.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.




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