September 6, 1996

Downtown Standout
Thomas Chapin leads an innovative trio

By Bob Blumenthal


perugia, Italy – “I’m constantly amazed that we can play anything, with no restrictions, and people always seem to relate to it,” Thomas Chapin marveled; and those lucky enough to hear Chapin’s trio in Italy this summer shared his amazement.  For 10 nights in July, during the run of  Umbria Jazz ’96 in Perugia, the alto saxophonist, bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Michael Sarin had soared through two sets a night at the subterranean Club Il Pozzo, dispensing loose but lucid, coherently combustible jazz that left exhilarated listeners demanding more.

“Were always rooted,” explained Chapin, whose trio will work similar magic at Scullers on Thursday.  “And if you can begin with something that people relate to and take them a little further, it’s like show-and-tell.  That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

During a lengthy afternoon conversation on a terrace with one of Perugia’s most commanding views, Chapin left no doubt that what he is supposed to be doing is music.  “It was a state of being, it was never a consideration,” he says of his career choice.  “I’ve never taken a day gig.  I’ve always supported myself playing music.  And the music I play is what I need to do.  If I was playing weddings, I’d die spiritually.   There is a drawing power of the spirit, and if you’re lucky, you get aligned with it.”

Yet Chapin is not content to be pigeonholed.  While he is a mainstay of the Knitting Factory Works label and a primary figure in New York’s downtown scene, his alto (plus sopranino sax and flute) sounds just as convincing in the more straight-ahead settings of his Arabesque Jazz albums.  Chapin got his first major professional exposure as lead alto sax and musical director for Lionel Hampton’s big band in the early ‘80s, and even his wildest forays make room for touching hallowed jazz bases – as in one tumultuous improvisation on his original “Iddly” at Il Pozzo, which flashed references to “Freedom Jazz Dance,” “Chameleon,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Tickle Toe” and “Volunteered Slavery” along the way.

Chapin is not part of the famous musical family with the same surname.  “I’m someone from Manchester, Connecticut, who attended Phillips Academy in Andover and happened on jazz.  I remember listening to a Boston radio station that began a jazz show with a Coltrane invocation each morning; then someone gave me a Roland Kirk record by chance that changed everything.  Before that, I used to dance and jump around to music as a little kid, and I took some piano lessons like everyone at the time.  You get into things like music dirty, and then the rest of it is a process of purifying and getting down to essentials.  Underneath is this ball of magnetism you’re trying to polish and refine.”

When he entered college, Chapin was playing the saxophone and pursuing musical studies seriously.  “I began at the University of Miami, but bailed out real fast,” he recalled; then I went to Hartt College [of Music, in Connecticut] and Rutgers.  [Saxophonist/educator] Paul Jeffrey at Rutgers, really taught me the be-bop catechism; and we played gigs rather than concerts.  I never took the time to transcribe solos and cop other players.  I’ve always preferred to grab a bit of this and a bit of that,” he stressed, kneading his hands, “and make my own mud pies.”

His five years with Hampton brought further lessons.  “I think of Lionel Hampton, who I spent so much time with, and that joy he communicates is what he’s about,” said one of the few younger players who gave signs of enjoying an equally good time in front of an audience.  As the ‘80s progressed, Chapin moved more totally into personal areas, which he does not see as a deliberate change of direction.  “It was never a transformation, because the trick when you’re in a situation like a big band is to know in your own mind that you’re on your own path.  Jazz is essence expressing itself through personality, and I just started feeling that Thomas Chapin thing happening.”

At decade’s end, he discovered a means to that expression through his trio.  “A friend asked me to put something together for a mini-festival in the summer of ’89,” he recalled.  “I had a sextet at the time, and thought a trio would be a little different.  Mario and I had already played together for eight years, and Mario introduced me to Pheeroan ak Laff, our first drummer.  The same friend hooked me up with the Knitting Factory, which recorded our first gig – with Steve Johns on drums – in December ’89 and put it on Volume 3 of their anthology series.  They started Knitting Factory Works soon after that, when Mike Sarin joined the trio.  We were the label’s third signing, which gave us the forum.”

While KFW has recorded five trio CDs and allowed Chapin to craft special projects where the group is augmented by brass and (on the new album “Haywire”) strings, he has explored standards and more symmetrical originals on two Arabesque recordings.  “I hate to define things in these terms” he said, “but I have this mainstream side to me.  So I made a tape with musicians I had known for years, Ronnie Matthews and Ray Drummond.”  This led to “I’ve Got Your Number,” which was followed by the even more impressive “You Don’t Know Me,” a memorable quintet date featuring Tom Harrell that is built around the five-part “Safari Notebook” suite Chapin wrote after a trip to Cape Town and Namibia.  Because he has proven his “inside” mettle, and because his trio communicates on such a visceral level, conservative jazz fans and even jazz neophytes have begun warming to Chapin’s working band and more limit-testing music.

“It’s hard, it’s very hard to create music,” he stressed; “it’s a clean slate every night.  Yet somehow I’m here, playing music in paradise.  Our appearance at Newport last summer was a milestone for the trio, and while I didn’t realize it would be, this festival is, too.  I’ve gotten into a very intuitive area, particularly with this group, where I don’t really know what I’m doing.  I don’t want to know, because it’s a better area.”

Reprinted with permission from Bob Blumenthal

All albums previously released on Knitting Factory Records are now the sole property of and available through Akasha, Inc.