YOU DON’T KNOW ME
1992-1996 is probably his most productive period and also his most creative. In these four years he releases another trio CD “Menagerie Dreams” (1994), with saxophonist John Zorn and poet Vernon Frazer as special guests. Yet to come are his last Trio albums on the Knitting Factory Records label which include what Chapin considers his best-ever work, "Sky Piece" (1996).
Also in these formidable years, the trio gives milestone world-stage career performances: in 1993 at the Madarao Jazz Festival, Japan, which showcases his trio in one of the first overseas big-stage appearances, and also on that date, Thomas plays with legend Betty Carter. While crossing the Pacific Ocean to return to the U.S., the trio stops in Hawaii and gives a stellar performance at the prestigious Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Thomas and Betty Carter at Newport Jazz Fest in Madarao (Japan).
Photo permission by Akasha, Inc.
Says Mario Pavone, "He was terrified of what key she might sing 'Speak Low' in ( singers always sing in unusual keys ). But this [photo] is after .. and he had nailed it !!!!"
In 1995 the trio gives what is considered by many to be a breakthrough and unforgettable U.S. performance at the renowned Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. You can still feel the impact the artist made on the lives of all that came in contact with him. Laurence Donohue-Greene, Managing Editor of The New York City Jazz Record, recalls, “Thomas performing at Newport in 1995… That was a life highlight in music for me. Over 20 years ago and I vividly remember that set to this very day as still being one of the greatest Newport Jazz Festival sets I’ve ever seen.”
In 1996 at the prestigious Umbria (Summer) Jazz Festival, in Perugia, Italy, the trio plays to standing ovations in an unprecedented 10-night marathon at Club Il Pozzo. Ironically, because his illness is on the near horizon, an 'epiphany' Thomas has during this significant summer engagement in Umbria won't be tested: " ... The standing ovations made Chapin realize that his 'forward looking' music had reached the point where it was appealing to a more extensive and varied audience than he had imagined," New York Times critic Mike Zwerin writes. To add to the pile-up of heartbreaking losses to come as the forthcoming adversity starts to overtake the impressive successes for Chapin, an invitation to return to this important Fest must be forsaken. Carlo Pagnotta, director of Umbria Jazz Fest, asks Chapin to bring back three of his groups for the Winter, 1997 Fest: his trio, a quartet or quintet, and the trio plus strings or brass ensemble. Chapin's tragic diagnosis of illness at the end of January, 1997 sadly prevents him from fulfilling this meritorious return engagement.
SJU Jazz Festival, April 9th, 1994 © Marinus Lavèn
Also in these years are some memorable NYC downtown concerts, Chapin appears as guest with a hiphop-freejazz project (Species Compability by Ken Valitsky), and also plays improvisational music with Under Cover Collection Band with a.o. Tom Cora. He does some formidable performances with legendary avant drummer William Hooker in 1992, and it results in the posthumous CD release "Crossing Points" on the Lithuanian NoBusness label (2011). Besides these avant-garde projects the versatile saxophonist maintains his strong mainstream side: Chapin as hardbopper with a sound referring strongly to Phil Woods.
For Arabesque Records, a jazz and classical label, he makes two albums: “I’ve Got Your Number” (1993) and “You Don’t Know Me” (1994). Here Chapin leaves the trusted trio nest and works in a quartet and quintet setting with people as Tom Harrell, Peter Madsen, Reggie Nicholson, and old friends as Ray Drummond, Ronnie Mathews and Steve Johns. These two albums, much praised, absolutely place Chapin as a jazz master who firmly belongs equally in the traditionalist camp as the avant garde. As critic Chris May in allaboutjazz wrote, "[He] was his own man, but his music resonated loudly with the work of reed giants from an earlier age."
The following year, 1995, he starts a session for Knitting Factory with Anthony Braxton on piano. Together with Dave Douglas, Mario Pavone and Pheeroan AkLaff they play “Seven Standards”: wonderful solo moments but not enough interaction. Much more interesting is “The Fuchsia” (1997 release on Koch) from a couple of months later: the only recording of the Peggy Stern/Thomas Chapin Quartet, one of his lesser known mainstream projects with Drew Gress on bass and Bobby Previte on drums. There’s a great understanding between Chapin and the pianist and composer: Stern delivers most of the compositions and Chapin feels very comfortable with them. It’s an album with plenty of pleasant surprises, funky rhythms, nice melodies and strong interplay. In addition it’s one of his few recordings with a pianist; nevertheless totally different than the improvisation duo with the late celebrated NY free pianist Borah Bergmann (“Inversions”, 1992) or “Watch Out” in quartet with pianist Misako Kano, Kyoto Fujiwara and Matt Wilson, recorded in 1996, but posthumously released in June 1998.
Thomas Chapin Trio @ North Sea Jazz Festival, The Hague, Netherlands, 1995
After eight years of great and still-rising success with the trio, Chapin takes a well-deserved break in early 1997 to travel to, for him, the beloved continent, Africa, a place of lifelong musical resonance and influence. Over the years, he's been several times to visit and explore and on one occasion, he plays in a Cape Town club at the invitation of Connecticut bassist-friend Hotep Galeta, who was living in South Africa at the time. But on this new trip in early 1997, he visits eastern and coastal area, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar. In Zanzibar he meets local musicians and helps a French musicologist record them. It is here, sadly, that Chapin's unbelievable downturn begins. He gets sick with fever, is weakened and must return to New York. Once home, he is immediately diagnosed with leukemia. It is February, 1997. The treatments last for a full year. There are some hopeful moments, but tragically he is not to recover. Mario Pavone, critics and others lament this fate, describing the up-to-that-point, undeniable upward movement of Thomas and the music: "The plane was just gaining altitude."
In the Fall of 1997, Chapin is too weakened by his leukemia to continue his work. He stops performing and there are no more recordings after a very busy previous year of sessions with musician-friends: Ineke Vandoorn, Misako Kano, Mario Pavone, Michael Blake, Barbara Dennerlein and Pablo Aslan. Together with Aslan, a bassist, originally from Argentina, and pianist Ethan Iverson they had formed Avantango as a septet in 1994. They play “spontaneous tango” as it is called by Aslan in the liner notes from the now-Trio group (with Aslan, Chapin and Iverson) CD “Y en el 2000 también” (1996): tango trying to incorporate jazz and free improvisation. Thomas' original tune, "Telling Comment" is included in the recording.
Throughout his musical years, Chapin has been using a cross pollination between jazz and non-Western music, world and indigenous music in his compositions: Armenian-American oud master-friend Ara Dinkjian plays on Radius (1984) for instance, or the suite “Safari Notebook” (from “You Don’t Know Me”, 1994) in which Chapin incorporates impressions from his journeys through Africa and Namibia. And on I've Got Your Number, 1993, he uses the master Afro-Caribbean percussionist Louis Bauzo on congas. Chapin studied with Bauzo in 1991 through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Amercan's prestigious public funding body. "For all the diversity of his musical experiences," writes bassist Vernon Frazer in the liner notes, "Chapin is no musical dilettante flitting from one genre to another, his commitment to music in all its varieties is total. 'I do it for the joy of playing, of becoming the music that I'm playing.' says Chapin. 'It's not like putting on clothes. It comes from within. I'm exploring different facets of my personality.'" Frazer continues, "Chapin's voice remains constant, spicing each musical dish with his distinctive, energetic sound."