Seventeen artists from nine countries came together to record Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching. The band’s music blends American jazz with Chinese influences to create a sound that’s out of this world.
Sharp notes burst from a three-piece brass section. Electric guitars scream and whistle, floating over roaming lines on the keyboard. Acoustic guitar, bass and percussion hang underneath as foreign vocals cut through it all.
While there are many moving parts to Song Dynasty, it is the creation of Li Liu and her boyfriend, Ben Holt, local musicians and alumni of the University of North Texas’ jazz studies program. Liu says she wants people to have trouble labeling their band.
“We want to be hard to define,” Liu says. “We don’t want to just be jazz, pop, R&B, world music, hip-hop or Chinese music. We want to be all of the above to reflect our connected world.”
The pair has gone a long way in pursuit of their musical aspirations. Holt left his home in Canada to attend classes at UNT. Liu left Taiwan after her musical success peaked to do the same, she says. She was studying jazz, playing big venues, going on tour with professional jazz musicians and making TV appearances in her home country, but Liu felt like she had done all there was to do with her music in Taiwan and wanted to come to America to study jazz from the real masters, she says. This led her to audition for a spot in UNT’s jazz program in 2015, two years after Holt enrolled at the school.
The two met through a mutual friend on their way to a concert in Fort Worth, and they got to talking a little bit over the following week, and one night, Holt asked Liu to go out to dinner on Denton's Fry Street.
Holt recalls: “(Liu) said no. It’s like 8 o’clock and I get in bed and I get this text: ‘I changed my mind. I’m hungry. Are you still down there?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, I’m still down there!’ I get my pants back on and take off.”
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Eventually, the two started practicing their music together. While jamming jazz standards, Liu would sing and scat over Holt's guitar playing. After a while, she started to feel like her culture wasn’t represented in this genre she had grown to love so much. "There's American jazz, European jazz, but no one was talking about Chinese jazz," she says.
Holt was enthusiastic about trying something new. Liu says Holt understood that she had her own background, which she wanted underlying her music. Song Dynasty was Liu’s way of creating a more prominent representation of Chinese culture in jazz music.
Having also studied Chinese literature, Liu decided to write most of her lyrics in Mandarin. The language is tonal, which means one word can have several meanings depending on how a person says it. Writing in Mandarin not only keeps her in touch with her roots, but it presents an interesting challenge to Liu as a singer and lyricist.
“I’m really picky,” she says. “The music goes up, and it goes down, and I’m trying to get the lyrics to rhyme with each other, and make sure the tonality goes with the flow of the music.”
But Liu doesn’t stop there. She sings in four languages performing with Song Dynasty: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Haka and English.
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The duo spent a couple of years writing music and performing all over. This last year, however, they decided to lock down their multilingual inspiration and pour it into an album. They spent 10 months recording it at Mockingbird Sound Recording Studio in Denton and had the tracks mixed and mastered at The Echo Lab.
The title track’s name, "Searching," refers to the exploration of all the band’s musical influences. All the artists featured on the album are Denton residents, most of whom have their master’s degrees in music performance from UNT. Gospel singers from Cross Church Denton, Latin guitarist Pepe Valdez from Peru and award-winning Mexican guitarist Noé Garcia were among the artists featured on the album.
“It was amazing to see what our fellow musicians brought to these recording sessions and how our music came to life,” Liu says.
Song Dynasty is currently working on promoting their album and creating videos for each of their newly released songs. In the not-too-distant future, they plan to tour the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, China and eventually the rest of the world.