John Chin: Sun of Music
Release date: November 3, 2023

Some live albums make it very clear that you weren't there. They're like looking through a shop window at items you can see but not touch. Pianist John Chin's Sun Of Music: Live From The Lockdown is a very different experience. To listen to this record is to be transported through time and space to one of New York's legendary live rooms, and to watch three artists make music that can come only from trust and a shared artistic vision, born of long years together on the bandstand.  

"These guys on the record are guys that I've known for a couple decades, from when I first came to New York around 1998. They're like brothers to me," said Chin about his bandmates, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Jaimeo Brown.   

Conly agrees: "Jaimeo and John and I have played hundreds of gigs together over the last 20 years. This record captures some of the exuberance that we feel when we get to play together. There's just so much history and love wrapped up in the music when we play." 

Sun Of Music was recorded in August 2020, during the height of lockdown, with no audience present other than a few Smalls employees. The trio hadn't played together, or even seen one another, in months. For Chin, life had been a rollercoaster. He got a serious case of Covid right as the lockdown started in March. His wife went into labor while he was still sick. Then, two days after his fever broke, his first child was born. He even went a few weeks without playing the piano for the first time in his adult life. The show at Smalls, therefore, was cathartic.   

"The pandemic has meaning for all of us, in one way or another," said Chin, "and for me, my life changed in an instant. I’m not sure what changed my life more, the pandemic or becoming a father. The city was empty and everything about this show was a surreal experience, from leaving the house and commuting, to showing up in the West Village, which was a ghost town, to playing an empty club that would normally be packed with a line out the door. Everything was strange, but when we finally played music, it was like everything snapped back to a former life and we ended up making something beautiful out of the ashes." 

The repertoire on Sun Of Music comes from songs the trio regularly plays. They always include something by Wayne Shorter; for this show, they chose "Speak No Evil" and "Fall." They often close their sets the way they do here, with Bobby Hutcherson's "Montara." But familiarity, in this case, bred innovation. Chin said there were surprising moments all throughout the set, such as on their rendition of "Pure Imagination."  

"As we go into 'Pure Imagination,' there's an interlude that comes straight from the music cues in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," said Chin. "And then somehow, toward the end, the three of us ended up deconstructing the tune, and then I found myself playing solo piano. It was a beautiful and surprising moment for me. It speaks to that intuition I mentioned. We'd never done it that way before … and we've never done it that way since." 

It's clear that all three musicians feel that same sense of connection. 

"As a drummer, playing with John and Sean is like driving in a luxury car that has four-wheel drive," said Brown. "It’s amazing sharing music with individuals who can approach the most simple and complex music with equal intensity. Playing with this trio is a spiritual experience that cleans out my heart and soul." 

Chin agreed: "I felt the love in the room, and it felt familiar, even though I hadn't been in Smalls for months. It didn't throw me off that the room was empty. It didn't matter to any of us. I know that for sure. It was familiar and beautiful and there was something very reassuring about it." 

That ease is immediately apparent in the opening moments of "Bermuda Triangle Eyes," a tune by friend of the band Kelvin Sholar. It starts with a Basie-esque slow drag by Chin. After the break, the song builds and builds. There's a bass solo, during which someone on the bandstand laughs and it's clear they're all locked in and having a blast. The energy shifts throughout the set, but that initial sense of joy and release never disappears. It's there in the drive of "Speak No Evil," in the ebb and flow of "Fall," in an edge-of-the-seat performance of Coltrane's "Countdown," and all the way through the final groove of "Montara." 

Overcoming all the strange realities of the world at this time, that shared vision and trust is what brought forth the recording of Sun of Music. 

"With those guys I'm not afraid to do anything," said Chin. "They can support me as a pianist in a way that will enable me to play nothing if I need to and it will still be musical and amazing. That kind of trust is very rare. After not playing for months and months, this was a beacon of light." 

JAY N. MILLER
PATRIOT LEDGER
Korean American pianist John Chin is joined here by Jaimeo Brown on drums and Sean Conly on bass, and this live recording is another pandemic story...here.