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John Chin’s (Downplayed) ‘State of Flow’

John Chin is a humble guy. Although he’s had a Grammy nomination and has been lauded for his musical talent since he was a young boy, he’ll tell you he was no child prodigy.

A Korean-American growing up in Los Angeles, Chin recalls his first encounter with a piano, but is sure to emphasize that he was not beckoned to it by any sort of guiding light.

“My parents always had a piano even though they didn’t play. They were classical music fans. They told me I gravitated to it, but it’s not uncommon if you have little ones in the house that they make their way to the piano,” he says.

Nonetheless, his parents nurtured his interest and set him up with a piano teacher by the age of 4 or 5. Chin’s first public performance was in kindergarten, but that, too, he is reluctant to regard as a milestone.

“It wasn’t a formal performance,” he says. “It was just me getting up there and playing. I just remember there was a piano in the classroom. I don’t remember what I played … ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’? Maybe it was the one that comes after that. I think I could read music before I could read English.”

That last part tells you something. Also, the fact that the young pianist’s gift was recognized by California State University, where he was admitted at age 14 and graduated with a B.A. in music at age 19 before continuing on to a masters program at Rutgers University under the great pianist Kenny Barron and pursuing an Artist Diploma at Juilliard, eventually becoming a fixture in New York City’s jazz scene.

“My sequence of early music education was not typical for an American kid,” Chin says. “Classical music was a part of my childhood, but I wouldn’t consider myself to be any good at it. I think it was really the pursuit of playing by ear when I was 12 or 13 and getting better and better at it that motivated me. That’s how I discovered this jazz thing.”

Jazz was nonexistent in Chin’s childhood home, so he’d save money to go to the record store, choosing blindly depending on what album cover looked jazzy or which featured a picture of a pianist.

“Somehow down the line, I started learning how to play things by ear and off the radio – simple things. That’s when I made up my mind that jazz was the ultimate music for an ear player,” he says. “There was an inherent sophistication to the music. When I first tried, though, I couldn’t do it. It was too sophisticated.”

According to Chin, his early days attempting to play jazz were a struggle.

“I couldn’t hear the harmony. The lines were so fast and complex,” he says. “Listening to Charlie Parker or any of the great sax players, they’d put in so many notes and go so fast. In my mind I thought, it’s impossible they know what they’re doing. I’d get on the piano and move my fingers as fast as I could and it sounded terrible. It was then I realized they knew exactly what they were doing … every single note. It blew my mind. I found myself yearning to achieve this ultimate music. I yearned to have a grasp on it.”

By all counts, Chin has managed to find that grasp. He’s released four albums as a band leader and has recorded or shared the stage with artists such as Benny Golson, Ron Carter, John Ellis, Dayna Stephens and Mark Turner, to name just a few. He has toured extensively with Vail favorite Rene Marie and his piano work was nominated for a Grammy on Marie’s 2017 Sound of Red album. His versatility in moving between complex styles – not only those under the jazz umbrella such as bebop and swing, but also hints of classical and pop – have been revered by audiences and music critics across the globe.

Returning to Vail on March 26 for his debut performance as a bandleader (he performed as sideman with Rene Marie on two previous visits), Chin and his trio highlight the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, who he refers to as “timeless” and whose numbers have found their way into his performance for decades. When it comes down to describing the style of his own compositions or the flourish he adds to the classics of icons such as Strayhorn and Ellington, Chin is once again self-effacing.

“The jazz musicians that have come before me, that have carried on this music, a lot of my playing comes from that tradition, but with the idea of pushing the envelope at the same time,” he says. “I believe that a part of the tradition is to push the line and have a progression. I’m constantly a student but also an artist creating something new. Also, I’m always reaching for being in the moment as much as possible, being in a state of flow. When you kiss somebody for the first time, it’s like that. That moment is so real and you can’t think of anything but that moment. I want to be aware of the exact moment I’m in, to reach the state of flow. That leads to consciousness and freedom and living.”

March 26 – The John Chin Trio plays Ellington and Strayhorn

John Chin is joined by Sean Conly on bass and Darrell Green on drums to perform two riveting sets featuring the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Performances take place at The Vail Sonnenalp Hotel. Seating is jazz club style in Ludwig’s Terrace with full dinner and bar service available (a $30 food and beverage minimum applies). Doors open at 5 p.m. for the 5:30 p.m. performance and at 7:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. set. Tickets to each performance are $40. For more information, call 970-479-6146.

Get tickets here to the 5:30 p.m. performance.

Get tickets here to the 8 p.m. performance.

10 Reasons to Catch the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series

It can be argued that live jazz is best enjoyed in a warm, classy lounge with snow falling outside. This is just one of many reasons to secure your spot at the 2019 Vail Jazz Winter Series.

It is widely known that jazz became popular in the 1930s, but its hey day in Vail has gone on for 25 years … with the best still to come. That’s yet another reason to look into what Vail Jazz has cooking this winter. But here are the key 10:

It’s Vail Jazz’s silver anniversary, so the Series is going big. Following the holiday kickoff extravaganza – a swing dance party at The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch with New York City’s sizzling eight-piece The Hot Sardines, the 2019 Winter Series is delivering more than ever before – seven evenings of live music throughout the winter. Five of these sparkling nights take place in the swanky lounge setting of Ludwig’s Terrace at Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel.

Entertainment for both the après crowd and the late-nighters. World-class artists light up The Sonnenalp Hotel on Feb. 26, March 5, March 12, March 19 and March 26 in a true jazz club format of back-to-back performances. The first seating appeals to the après ski crowd at 5:30 p.m. and the second targets late-night live music seekers at 8 p.m. Full dinner and bar service are available at each seating.

When we say the 2019 lineup is “world-class,” we mean it. The Winter Series lineup is comprised of the most talented artists in today’s jazz world … lauded not only in the U.S., but across the globe. After his sold-out Vail debut last summer, American blues pianist and vocalist Joe McBride returns on Feb. 26, followed by French-born songstress Cyrille Aimée on March 5, the charismatic Emmet Cohen Trio on March 12, soulful gospel favorite Niki Haris on March 19 and finally Grammy-nominated pianist John Chin on March 26. That’s not to mention the savvy on intimate display at private residences for the Series’ invite-only gigs. Former Stevie Wonder band member and vocalist Robert Johnson performs with The Mark Diamond Trio on March 2 and Australian multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham on March 30.

Jazz has many musical wings and R&B is one of them. Joe McBride has oft been compared to Ray Charles. While the two share many characteristics – losing their eyesight at a young age followed by rapid development of tremendous vocal and piano talent – McBride has a sound all his own, even when he’s rolling through America’s favorite blues tunes. The Missouri native has recorded and/or shared the stage with everyone from Whitney Houston to Larry Carlton. He channels the spirits of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and other R&B Songbook masters with his own smokin’ energy and style on Feb. 26.

A voice that will hypnotize. Anyone who has trouble believing that vocal cords are a serious instrument has never heard or witnessed the enchantment of Cyrille Aimée. The young singer’s versatile vocal skills have been noted worldwide, from her native France, where she won the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival Competition, to New York City, where she’s won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Her voice has been enthusiastically described as everything from “saucy” to “sweet” by the New York Times.

Lose yourself in musical passion. The power of The Emmet Cohen Trio is all-encompassing, like walking into a tunnel of sound where every one of your senses is simultaneously enlivened, yet relaxed. A musical prodigy from the age of 3, Emmet Cohen’s piano compositions and delivery run the gamut from fluid to explosive. The Trio hits every tone and color on the jazz palette on March 12.

The rare treat of experiencing Niki Haris on a small stage. Every year at the end-of-summer climax event, the Vail Jazz Party, the first tickets to sell out are for Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin.’ The incredible soul singer who spent years touring with Madonna might be making a rarefied appearance on a smaller, indoor stage, but you can rest assured that her output will be as large and in-charge as ever. She gambols through a potent gamut of romping numbers while saluting her fellow sisters of soul on March 19.

The opportunity to witness John Chin before he’s swept up in big-time stardom. Born in South Korea and raised in California before moving to New York City and becoming a fixture of the Big Apple’s deep talent pool, John Chin draws inspiration not only from traditional jazz, but from pop, western and classical genres in his unique compositions. He’s released four albums as a bandleader and was nominated for a Grammy for his work on René Marie’s 2017 “Sound of Red” release. If you caught him performing with Marie in her Vail debut a couple of summers ago, you know he’s on a skyward trajectory. Don’t miss him at The Sonnenalp on March 26.

Supporting the future of musical talent, locally and globally. In addition to bringing in some of the world’s finest artists for the Winter Series and the pageant of free and ticketed summer performances, Vail Jazz also does its part in fostering generations of musicians to come through unique educational programs. These include the year-round Vail Jazz Goes to School program as well as the free summertime Jammin’ Jazz Kids sessions and the Vail Jazz Workshop, which selects and finances 12 of America’s top teenage musical prodigies in an intensive, week-long study group that culminates with live performances at the Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party. Every ticket purchased for a Vail Jazz performance or a donation made directly supports the nonprofit’s educational initiatives which, in turn, secures amazing talent for our children and their children to enjoy.

Classy date night. It’s a beautiful, cold, wintery night and there you are, cozied up with your loved one in the elegant Ludwig’s Terrace, a glass of wine and gourmet meal on the table and one of the planet’s most talented musicians providing a scintillating live soundtrack a few feet away. A night out in Vail doesn’t really get more romantic.

Learn more about Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary Winter Series.