By: George Varga
It’s a good thing San Diego piano wiz Chase Morrin has the boundless energy of a teenager. Anyone with less drive and stamina might get tired just contemplating his nonstop schedule, let alone trying to pull it off.
Morrin, 16, is the leader of his own jazz trio and his five-man Latin Connection. He is also the pianist in the Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine, one of San Diego’s longest lived big bands, and in the Palomar College 7 O’Clock Jazz Ensemble, in which he is only one of three members who are not college students or graduates.
Now a junior at Canyon Crest Academy High School in northern San Diego County, he also plays bonang barung (two-dozen small, gong-like tuned chimes) in his school’s Javanese Gamalan Orchestra. He currently takes four advanced placement courses, including calculus and physics, and averages four to five jazz gigs per week, as well as teaching classical piano to two students of his own.
How, then, does Morrin manage to squeeze in his homework, which averages three hours per night?
“Frantically!” he replied with a laugh. “I do my homework in between rehearsals and performances. I’m usually up late.”
Morrin, who recently played piano at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) for the world premiere of Anthony Davis’ latest opera, “Lilith,” is himself a prolific composer and arranger.
“Chase is an incredible talent,” Davis, a Tony Award-winning composer, said. “I have never had a student his age as accomplished.”
Morrin is now completing a series of traditional Finnish music pieces that he wrote for an upcoming performance by the Canyon Crest Academy vocal and dance ensembles.
“It’s a challenge because I’ve never played Finnish music before,” said Morrin.
Challenges are nothing new for this precocious musician, who has already earned enough awards and honors to fill a wall or two.
“He is definitely an extremely gifted young pianist, which is why we gave him merit scholarships the past two years,” said Daniel Atkinson, the founder of the annual UCSD Jazz Camp and the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library’s jazz program coordinator.
Musician Ira B. Liss, who has led his Big Band Jazz Machine for the past 31 years, is even more effusive.
“Chase is just amazing and very mature, musically,” he said of Morrin, who joined Liss’ 18-piece big band about six months ago.
“The median age of my band members is 35, so having a 16-year-old in the group is very unusual. But there are very few 16-year-olds that play like him. He reads music really well, is a very strong improviser and just wrote and orchestrated a piece, ‘Mumphis,’ that we’re adding to our repertoire. He’s scary good.”
Morrin’s love of music began when he was 9 and his parents bought him a small electric keyboard from Costco. Jazz became an all-consuming passion after his Russian-born piano teacher, Svetlana Pikous, gave him a Ray Charles songbook.
Morrin, who had already started composing his own songs, was barely 12 when he was named Musician of the Year by the Carmel Valley, Calif., branch of the Boys & Girls Club. The same year he wrote “Free Fall,” a jazz-funk piece inspired by Bach.
“I learned a lot about jazz by going on YouTube,” he said. “I’d type in ‘Ray Charles’ and there’d be links to (jazz piano giants) Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Or I’d be listening to (jazz radio station) KSDS-FM and hear some awesome pianist, like Chick Corea. Then, I’d buy their albums and learn their stuff.”
Morrin has learned his lessons well.
One of his latest compositions, “Angular Raga,” deftly mixes constantly shifting meters and syncopation with a Thelonious Monk-tinged chordal pattern and fleet bop-tinged lines. The piece, which was partly inspired by his growing interest in Indian classical music, recently earned Morrin the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Young Jazz Composer Award for 2010.
He performed “Angular Raga” on April 24 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where he was a finalist in the Los Angeles Music Center’s annual Spotlight Awards. He was awarded first place in the jazz instrumental category by an all-star panel of musicians that included veteran “Tonight Show” band leader Kevin Eubanks. On April 10, Morrin and his trio were one of six national finalists in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s annual Next Generation Festival — and the only group in the Open Combo Division that was not comprised of university students. Morrin won the “Outstanding Soloist” award, while his trio earned second-place honors, despite being the only non-university band to compete.
“My ability in math has helped me a lot with music theory and recognizing melodic and rhythmic patterns, which are sometimes related in ways you don’t realize,” Morrin said. “I helped a friend of mine write a rap song for our calculus class called ‘Calc Life.’ It’s important to be open to all styles of music, so you don’t limit yourself.”
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