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The Mystical, Artful Flow of Ed Chilungu on Piano

by Rich Kirkpatrick

As you listen to Ed Chilungu play piano, it is a perfect word to call his style a “flow.” There is no showing off of his precise technique, merely a journey he gently takes us on. With backgrounds in jazz and classical, Ed brings to Old Bear Records something that on the surface may seem out of place. That could not be further from the truth. You can feel the city of Buffalo in the tones and as you listen are guided along familiar sounds as if they were city streets. Old Bear is living up to its upstream image with a release that proves to be birthed from their vision of come-to-life moments. Ed’s story, as well as his music, is a full meal of such moments, delivered with the signature organic music production Old Bear creates.

One of these is not like the others.

Photograph by Sarah Bridgeman

The product of an Irish-Czech mother and Kenyan father, Ed grew up not looking like most of his neighbors in the suburbs of Buffalo or to his Catholic school classmates. Ed’s father immigrated from Africa in the 1970s, dramatically whiplashed from his thatched-roof hut in Kenya to accept a Fulbright scholarship in the United States. Eventually, his dad would teach anthropology at Buffalo State College. Indelible to Ed’s experience was his instant identification with the newly-elected president who shared the similar ethnic background. Our roots do shape us.

You can’t really pin Ed as the kid who was stuck in the house playing the piano. His parents encouraged his athletics as well as multiple music lessons. Chilungu studied violin and piano since age five. As a young athlete, he broke school records. Beyond his love for music, his passion for art and drawing won him first place in county-wide art competitions—in fact, he won for four straight years. All of this shows us a very focused and productive young person. Music fully captured Ed after his brother returned from a music camp with recordings and music that planted a dream to become a concert pianist. Ed says he prayed, “God, make me like Mozart.” For 12 years, Ed practiced eight hours a day—from age 10 to age 22. 

An enviable resume.

As far as a professional resume, Ed acquired a performance repertoire as a concert pianist that is over 20 hours in length, building into his jazz improv skills. Ed has won multiple awards as a classical concert pianist, but also began a journey into jazz and improv. His style has been explained as being Keith Jarrett and Ceci Taylor. Ed Chilungu takes you from improv performances that are entirely a Keith Jarrett-influenced affair to sharing the stage with many Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians in various chamber concerts and recitals. Additionally, you might see Ed playing jazz gigs with graduates from Eastman. As far as recording sessions, Eastman and Julliard musicians recorded with Chilungu–two very prominent music schools. His music, however, has a spiritual focus underneath all that he performs.

Ed’s life would reach a pivot point as a young adult. During his first days at State University of NY Purchase College–where he aimed to pursue his dream of becoming a concert pianist in the city of New York–9/11 occurred. The student body was sent home since his school could be used as a staging and housing area. During the drive back, the smoke from the New York could be seen behind him as he crossed the bridge as if the whole city was on fire. Ed felt that he and those around him had an awakening of sorts.

The dramatic conversion of Ed Chilungu.

Photograph by Sarah Bridgeman

Later that school year on Palm Sunday, Ed prepared tirelessly for over 10-hours a day for a recital of classical music for a billionaire who would then offer Ed a scholarship to pay for the last two years of school. But, the spiritual realm was about to interfere, and all of this came to a head. That night these words came to Ed as he wrote in his journal, “Son of Simeon, do not be afraid. Live a clean life.” “Maybe this is God,” thought Ed. Ed couldn’t sleep that night, and so he was playing Keith Jarrett’s “Time After Time.” The room filled up with a white. “I felt like chains were breaking off my body.” This song and the experience caused Ed to ask, “What is time after time…eternity” Ed felt God was highlighting eternity with the “time after time” message. “There is a time beyond this time,” Ed recalls thinking

“The next morning there was an improv class where I had to play stuff like Keith Jarrett.”  Ed recounts that a supernatural thing took place with music flowing out of him with great emotion. Ed began crying and ran out of the classroom. A friend who was a gospel organist approached and said to him, “Don’t cry Ed, I feel the same Holy Spirit that is upon me is upon you now. Everything is gonna be OK.”

The next day opened a new world. A panic attack suddenly came upon Ed, with a deep fear that a terrorist attack was about to happen. With quite a commotion happening, emergency services were called, and Ed was taken to an ER and then to a mental hospital. “God is light, God is light, God is light,” Ed remembers hearing while on the gurney. The darkness subsided as one of the EMTs comforted him. “The first day in the mental hospital was the first day I was a believer.” God rescued Ed, but then he was unfortunately labeled. “I literally had my eyes opened to the truth and then an hour later I was in an emergency room.” 

From concert pianist to improvisational keyboardist

Cover Art by Sarah Bridgeman

One powerful example of the change in Ed’s life showed up in his sudden ability to improvise on the piano. As a concert pianist, this was not his forte. But, the Spirit flowed through Ed’s piano playing which was evident to both he as well as those who heard him play. Ed became involved in a local church where he accompanied on the piano for a retirement home ministry with Pappy McClurg. Eventually, his ministry grew to performing in Relevant Worship and a Christian rock band. He never left his roots entirely, as he still performs and teaches piano and plays with the best of classical musicians. 

Ed Chilungu is releasing an instrumental recording with Old Bear Records–a version of the “flow” sound he is becoming known for. There indeed is a mystical experience from his life that Chilungu draws from, displayed in his dramatic conversion story. But, the art of improv merits a mention as well. The background of years of study in classical as well as jazz music is the launchpad of Chilungu’s flow. Notes appear, rhythms pulse, but the emotion and spiritual connection in Ed’s piano playing inspire.

You can purchase Ed’s “Soundtracks” record on all digital platforms today!

Also check out Ed’s Harmonized Sounds Episode which documents the making of “Soundtracks” at Old Bear Studio.

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