Never Let Me Go Reviews
Larry Blumenfeld, Wall Street Journal
'I Still Miss The Music I Never Got to Hear'
A new posthumous release captures in full bloom Thomas Chapin's talents.
The standard bird's-eye view of New York's jazz scene in the 1980s and '90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between. The truth on the ground was more fluid. There were musicians—some experienced, others on the rise—whose deep knowledge of tradition, engaging manner, exalted skills and adventurous spirit naturally bridged such divides.
Thomas Chapin fit that bill. He arrived in New York in 1981 as an alto saxophonist of swaggering confidence and searching tone, suggesting his studies with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. He was equally adept on flute and employed more obscure instruments, such as sopranino saxophone, with rare musicality in the tradition of his earliest inspiration, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The drama and showmanship of Chapin's performances no doubt owed to his six-year tenure as lead saxophonist and musical director in Lionel Hampton's orchestra.
Chapin was among the first and most distinctive of the musicians around whom promoter Michael Dorf built a record label and touring franchise from his Lower East Side club, The Knitting Factory. Though Chapin's earliest recordings featured ensembles ranging from quartet to octet, his 1991 album, "Third Force," announced the trio format that would be his primary musical vehicle, sometimes augmented with brass or strings. In July 1996, Chapin's trio recorded "Sky Piece," a masterly album that was equal parts furious improvisation and meditative calm. That same month, the group played a memorable 10-night stand at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy. Soon after, Chapin took a research trip to eastern Africa, where he fell ill. Upon his return to the U.S., he was diagnosed with leukemia. He'd take the stage one last time in early 1998, in a weakened state, during a benefit in his hometown of Manchester, Conn. He played his most tender composition, "Aeolus," on flute. Twelve days later on Feb. 13, three weeks shy of his 41st birthday, he was gone.
"I still miss the music I never got to hear," said Mario Pavone, the bassist in Chapin's trio. "As Thomas told me, the plane was just gaining altitude." Posthumous releases have sharpened our picture of that ascent. "Night Bird Song," released in 1999, which Chapin produced while battling his disease, was drawn from 1992 trio sessions he'd set aside. An eight-CD retrospective, "Alive," also from 1999, included one disc of previously unreleased trio material. "Ride," released in 2006, contained yet more.
As for where Chapin's music was headed, now come new clues. A three-disc set released last week, "Never Let Me Go" (Playscape Recordings), documents two shows: a 1995 concert at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, N.Y., and Chapin's final New York performance, at The Knitting Factory in December 1996. These tracks capture Chapin's talents in full bloom. He luxuriates in the melody of "You Don't Know Me," a ballad he'd recorded before, and negotiates stutter-step rhythms while debuting an original tune, "Whirlygig." The material is revealing. Chapin was translating the essence of his trio concept—Mr. Pavone described it as "structurally, big-band music for three players"—to quartet settings. The first two discs, from the Flushing concert, feature pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara and drummer Reggie Nicholson. Chapin had recorded with this lineup before. He deepened that rapport by rethinking familiar tunes and through new repertoire, including a lovely, if unexpected, version of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman." Disc three presents what was then a new concern, a quartet with Mr. Madsen, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Matt Wilson, for which Chapin had composed challenging originals. He also stretched a signature trio tune, "Sky Piece," moving from incantatory to furied and then back. The album ends with a Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition, a nod to Chapin's beginnings.
Chapin first came to jazz in an unlikely place, while attending Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He grew up in Manchester, Conn.—"about as lily-white a suburban upbringing you could imagine," recalled his brother, Ted. He met saxophonists and educators Jackie McLean and Paul Jeffrey at The Hartt School in Hartford, Conn., and then followed Mr. Jeffrey to Rutgers University. With his wire-rimmed glasses and ponytail, Chapin had the air of a hippie offstage, and an easy laugh. "But he was a taskmaster at rehearsals who knew what he was after," recalled Mr. Pavone. Other musicians were after it, too. Mr. Wilson, who sought out Chapin, said, "I knew he'd pull me along in the direction I was meant to go." Mr. Madsen recalled those quartet dates as "stirrings of something special for all of us."
If Chapin's name isn't instantly recognizable, it's also far from forgotten. That owes in part to the efforts of his widow, Terri Castillo-Chapin, who established Akasha, a nonprofit dedicated to his legacy. Akasha acquired his recordings from the former Knitting Factory label and, through Mr. Jeffrey's efforts, established an archive at Duke University. Beyond sheer listening pleasure, Chapin's body of music signifies a liberating promise carried at a time when walls seemed to be hardening between jazz's mainstream and its avant-garde. Michael Musillami, the guitarist who founded the Playscape label, and who performed with Chapin in several contexts, explained: "Whatever Thomas played sounded natural, as if he was doing just what he should do. It wasn't 'in' or 'out.' He made his own context. And that showed us all something."
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal. He also blogs at blogs.artinfo.com/blunotes.