Never Let Me Go Reviews

John Ross, Downbeat

February 2013

The first two discs feature the working quartet Chapin founded in the early 1990s—pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara and drummer Reggie Nicholson—during a date in Queens, N.Y. The third disc finds Madsen and Chapin at the Knitting Factory joined by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Matt Wilson; it was the saxophonist’s final New York performance before he died of leukemia in 1998 at age 40.

Playscape Recordings has released Never Let Me Go: Quartets ’95 & ’96, a three-disc volume of rare quartet recordings from the late alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin.

Chapin is better known for his trio work, and there are only a few studio recordings of his early quartet, making these live recordings a rarity, according to Michael Musillami, Playscape’s founder. Because of this, he spent two years trying to bring Chapin’s quartet sound to a wider audience, first working with Chapin’s widow, Terry Chapin, to secure the music from her personal holdings. He then had to toil over mid-’90s recording technology, working to get a clean, balanced ensemble sound. (The Knitting Factory concert had been taped on a cassette.) Musillami worked at it, however, because he believed he had something special.

“There’s a lot of [unreleased Chapin material] out there that hasn’t come to the forefront. But not like this,” he said. “The quartet stuff was hard to find.”

Musillami has a longa history with Chapin’s music. He first met the saxophonist in 1983 and soon established a lasting musical friendship that included a number of studio releases. Deciding to produce the package wasn’t that difficult, he said, because presenting the material in a live setting allows for a fuller picture of Chapin as a musician. The lengthy tunes contain extended Chapin solos both on alto saxophone and flute. “Thomas could read anything at sight; he could play through changes at any tempo, any key. He could play out without sounding like he was playing patterns,” Musillami said. “He was just a very, very open player. His sound was, I think, a singular sound.”

This versatility is apparent on Never Let Me Go. Though not as free as his trio recordings, Chapin nonetheless moves fluidly between tunes with chord changes and less-structured explorations. Pianist Madsen remembers that this fluidity and accessibility came across in Chapin’s stage personality.

“When he was playing on stage, nothing else mattered to him but connecting with the audience and the musicians playing with him,” Madsen said. “Thomas was always into the energy of the people at a performance. He thrived on this live energy.”

Chapin had been pursuing quartet work in addition to his trio jobs as another way to present his music; the saxophonist thought rounding out his quartet with Wilson and Colley, with their jazz cachet, might better entice record label executives, Madsen said. When he got sick and had to stop playing, Chapin had gigs in Europe lined up for the quartet and was working on finding additional opportunities. The quartet was working a lot in New York City, and Chapin was trying to interest labels in further projects because the quartet was also a somewhat easier sell than the trio, the pianist recalled.

And though Chapin was concentrating on establishing his quartet at that time in his life, that didn’t mean he was abandoning his early trio playing. “Adding harmony to his band gave him more colors to play with,” Madsen said. “Thomas didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing. He wanted both groups to be working. He wanted to have both groups to write for and to give him different musical inspirations.”