Never Let Me Go
(2012) Playscape Recordings (3-CD Release)
'95 at Flushing Town Hall w/ Peter Madsen, Kiyoto Fujiwara & Reggie Nicholson, and '96 at Knitting Factory w/ Peter Madsen, Scott Colley & Matt Wilson.
Aeolus as Lineman
Dylan Jones said it was the first existentialist country song. Its composer said he was inspired to write it by the sight of a lone figure picked out in silhouette at the top of a telephone pole somewhere on an endless country road. For Thomas Chapin, what came singing through the wires of Jimmy Webb’s classic was an unmissable resonance with key themes of his own composition. There’s some doubt about his exact identity, but Aeolus is best known as the god who gives Odysseus a sealed bag of unfavourable winds in order that he can navigate home on a favourable breeze, and Chapin’s “Aeolus” is a culminating moment in a personal odyssey that saw him create a body of work as sophisticated and as beautifully naturalistic—Aeolian, one might say—as anything in the American canon. Like Webb, Chapin had the ability to conflate the avant-garde and the populist in a single phrase or chord change. There was no question of “experimental” work in one compartment and “popular” work in another and while it might be a surprise to those who consider Chapin an avant-gardist or “outside” player to hear him play standard tunes changes, they should consider how those changes are being negotiated.
“Wichita Lineman” is a perfect instance of how deeply invested in Song he was. There is no radical deconstruction of the melody here, no “detourning” of the emotional cargo. It is remarkably as Webb wrote it and Glen Campbell first recorded it and if the song provides a strong metaphor for the improvising musician in his familiar/alien landscape, connected but ultimately isolated, singing with and against the contexts that are provided for him (and what contexts from Peter Madsen and the others!) it is also very simply a beautiful, lyrical performance, with some raw edges and harder overtones in the improvised section. As such it sits almost too perfectly in the company of Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty”, the composer’s only (?) surviving waltz-time composition but a gnarled and limping waltz rather than a graceful glide. I listened for the umpteenth time to Thomas’ performance of the piece with the London Paralympics screening silently in the corner, and it seemed, for the moment, an almost perfect soundtrack to the moment: grace transcending limitation, improvisation “within and against” the group, beauty shaped ‘round the psychic wound.
I have always tried to avoid any imputation of psychoanalysis in writing about Thomas’ music but I had the chance once or twice to talk to him about it and he never attempted to deny the existence of deep psychic freight as well as the rigorous depersonalised grace one might expect from a harp hung in the wind. I asked him if “Ahab’s Leg”, a composition from a dif-ferent and perhaps more algebraic phase of his career and not represented on this important posthumous release, was some kind of pointer to the creative life as an unstoppable search for the ultimate, for the unharpoonable “moment”. In reply, he hopped about the hotel room with one leg held up behind, but then sat down and very seriously discussed the differing proportions of joy and pain, emotional consonance and dissonance, freedom and discipline that go to the making of a “jazz” career.
I put the word in quotes because they were implicit in what he said. A man who had worked for many years with Lionel Hampton and with Chico Hamilton had emerged from those demanding schools largely, I suspect, unchanged as to essential direction but marked by the discipline. Chapin was the most admirable kind of “heretic”, if one understands that slackly used word to involve large elements of choice. He knew the tradition, as one can hear on half a dozen tracks here, and even if he did seem to come up through the faintly antic line of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with his preterite horns and deceptive showmanship, he was first and foremost a ‘jazz’ player who had somehow managed to bypass the slightly inward and doctrinaire world of bebop, travelling direct from the song-and-chords philosophy of the swing era into something unmistakably modern and personal. The motion he gets on Cy Coleman’s “I’ve Got Your Number”, a favourite song and title piece of the 1993 Arabesque album that forced a certain retraction and rethink on fans who had him down as a hard-edged experimentalist, is quite extraordinary. No other player of his generation swings quite like that. There is a paralympian grace to it, something awkward brokered into something impossibly graceful. It is a performance I have listened to now more than a dozen times, perhaps more than anything else on the set, and Chapin’s note-choices and phrasing seem to me bordering on the miraculous, not for their virtuosity or daring but because they skirt so closely to the obvious while leaving obviousness far, far behind. In the same way, he takes “Wichita Lineman” and turns it into a burner but without for a second compromising the song’s essential nature. Compare what Coltrane—who does come out of bop, albeit by his own lofty road—used to do to popular song.
The inside/outside debate is now quite as redundant as the old, cooked-up turf war between composition and improvisation. Chapin was neither the one nor the other. He was in this regard very different to an early Hamilton alumnus Eric Dolphy, who managed to alternate and juxtapose “inside” and “outside” elements, a simple clarinet blues alongside whole-tone sequences that seemed to break open the chromatic contracts of modern jazz. Though he adopted some of Dolphy’s multi-instrumentalism, and took flute playing a stage further than Eric achieved (listen to the precision of “Never Let Me Go” and again to the almost orchestral accompaniment Madsen brings to it), he was not, I suspect, much interested in expanding the palette as such. Nor was Kirk, who sought unusual horns to realise the unusual sounds in his head, or even Braith and Braxton, who had their own agenda for the saxophone family. In the end, Chapin’s natural voices were alto saxophone and flute. He seems most fully himself when they, rather than the mezzo- soprano in F or the tricky sopranino, are in play. Perhaps only Braxton has shown a similar instinct for the continuity of the “tradition”, throwing Bird and Trane up against Warne Marsh and Frankie Lymon. Chapin’s inclusion of an Artie Shaw tune might seem surprising, but it’s a logical theme for him. It sits just right for his voice, but pitched at the utter range of what he naturally did on his two main horns, and that is where the daring comes in, here as much as anywhere in the recorded work. Musical themes are never picked for their titles, but Thomas did on occasion openly wonder at the way he was pigeonholed by the critics, and “You Don’t Know Me” now reads like a small challenge, as if to say: listen, don’t judge yet: there is more to me than eldritch stuff and thrown-over harmony. In this, he’s very like Monk, who has acquired a reputation – now admittedly as a composer rather than as an eccentric performer— which seems slightly at odds with the rather fragile and vulnerable essence of the music he actually made.
The release of Never Let Me Go is inevitably coloured and complicated by the fact of Thomas’ early death. “Late” works and those marked op. posth. acquire a certain retrospective significance they could not have had at the time, even if they had been executed under the shadow of ill-health. There is no sense that he goes back to Kirk’s “Lovellevellillqui” with any kind of retrospective or autobiographical urge: here is where I come from. Quite the opposite. Everything we hear Chapin playing on these sides has more of the spirit of Melville, a favourite writer, who considered the world a ship on the voyage out. Chapin almost literally “embarks” on a tune and a solo. He is an existentialist in the sense that decisions are made without any certainty as to the outcome. He is a country existentialist in that it all happens without dogma and with homespun practicality. Isn’t the abiding impression of these tracks their craftedness and skill. That being so, Chapin didn’t mind a crew who could sometimes loose a challenging wind from the bag. Whatever the weather, he navigates. He sails. The destination is a “Big Maybe”.
Never Let Me Go received tremendous critical response, a few teasers and a link to a trove of reviews…
An alto saxophonist and flutist of rangy intellect and great, gulping conviction, Thomas Chapin was probably on the brink of a breakthrough when leukemia killed him in 1998. He was 40 then, and revered within the downtown scene. But his music felt destined for wider circulation, if you trust the impression left by "Never Let Me Go: Quartets '95 and '96" (Playscape). The album, two concerts on three CDs, underscores Mr. Chapin's connection to jazz custom, even as it ratifies his claim as a vanguardist.
- Nate Chinen, New York Times
These tracks capture Chapin's talents in full bloom. 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. 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.
- Larry Blumenfeld, Wall Street Journal
Even on his most abstract expressionist canvases Chapin paints with a rich palette of searing sonic colors and slashing lines that Jackson Pollock might well have envied for their spiraling, spontaneous beauty...Chapin's imagination rollercoasters along, creating dizzying, surprise-filled
excitement, extemporaneous poetry celebrating the existential ecstasy of the moment. It's the kind of natural high that the great Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when describing his own jazz-inspired works, once called "the Coney Island of the mind, the circus of the soul." Although it's been hibernating in the archives for many years, the material sounds as fresh and
alive as it did the day it was born, timeless art created by a never-to-be outdated artist.
- Owen McNally, Hartford Courant
Playing at the peak of his creative powers, his work on this box set should put to rest any remaining attempts to categorize him as mainstream or avant-garde. Those who followed his music knew he was both--and much more. Thomas didn't straddle two worlds; he embraced them as part of one vast spectrum of music. His intellectual and emotional capacity enabled him to to
synthesize his broad musical vocabulary into a core expression appropriate to the musical moment. In addition to releasing excellent and unheard material from a voice gone too soon, Never Let Me Go underscores the brilliance of Thomas Chapin's work and reminds us that nobody in the past fourteen years has surpassed him.
- Vernon Frazer, Bellicose Warbling