Never Let Me Go Reviews

Owen McNally, The Hartford Courant

December 2012

Although struck down by leukemia at40 in 1998, Thomas Chapin, the phenomenal instrumentalist/composer from Manchester, left behind a rich, life-affirming legacy. What is still very much alive are his recordings, compositions and a wealth of memories in the hearts and minds of anyone who was ever touched by his passionate music or his friendly, unassuming yet deeply spiritual and intellectual presence.

An invaluable chunk of that legacy has resurfaced in a marvelous 3-CD release titled "Never Let Me Go: Quartets '95 & '96" (Playscape Recordings, $29.95), comprised of two previously unreleased live performances freshly tapped from the family archive.

As Michael Musillami, the noted guitarist/composer, Chapin collaborator and friend, writes in the liner notes "the power, beauty and depth of Thomas's live quartet performances" have never until now been available to the public.

The trifecta package contains 15 ferociously creative, endlessly exciting pieces culled from live performances in New York, one in Flushing Town Hall, the other at The Knitting Factory, the cutting-edge mecca which, as Musillami notes, was the saxophonist/flutist's "homebase throughout his career." The Knitting Factory recordings mark the globe-trotting musician's final concert in New York City.

Equally at home with free jazz or modern jazz, Chapin was an ecumenical figure who had no concern for the doctrinal purity of one particular style over another, ignoring the anal-retentive categories that dogmatic jazz critics present as the one true faith and single measure of all things. As a freewheeling improviser and composer, Chapin had only two standards for judging or making music: beauty and invention.

Although he was a creative-music darling of the downtown avant-garde jazz scene at The Knitting Factory, he was, as "Never Let Me Go" constantly affirms, equally brilliant at playing house-rocking jazz that invoked the saxophone tradition from Sonny Criss, Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean to Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.

He was a constant seeker of truth and student of history, who knew and mastered the reed tradition from the classic, erotically-charged R&B honkers walking-the-bar on through John Coltrane's spiritual, atonal ascensions to transcendental heights. Beyond influences, which all artists have, is his distinctive, original voice and rugged artistic integrity.

Honed from his early days as a gifted young player jamming on the Hartford jazz scene, Chapin's intensely personal form of self-expression was illuminated by a vibrant mix of high-energy and soulful lyricism. Those high-flying stylistic elements were fueled by his irrepressible desire to express deep emotions and his inner-most, even subconscious-level thoughts in the most beautiful, poetic way he possibly could in order to connect with his audience. "Only connect" could have been his mantra. And connect he did, as he does on these discs, which demonstrate his dramatic, dare-devil high-wire act of balancing the visceral with the cerebral.

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 is never dryly academic, never an Ivory Tower pedant concocting abstruse, elitist exercises meant to be understood only by similarly enlightened musicians, cultist critics and aficionados.

On even the freest pieces, 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."

Variety abounds, including such ballads as the title tune, Chapin's elegant flute prelude rendition of "Never Let Me Go." Its eloquent, impressionist ambience owes as much to Claude Debussy as it does to any musical tradition. "You Don't Know Me," another impassioned rendition of a standard, opens and closes with inspired a cappella passages, revealing this widely celebrated avant-garde practitioner as a deeply expressive ballad player.

Artie Shaw's "Moonray" becomes a jubilant hoedown. Charlie Parker's "Red Cross" morphs into a "High Noon" showdown with a sax-slinging Chapin taking no prisoners with this high-caliber house-rocker. Chapin puts his indelible stamp on pieces by Thelonious Monk and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, along with varied originals, including a rollicking romp called "Spanky House," a funky freedom jazz dance to life. Or switching gears to a reflective mood, he soars on an original flute work called "Sky Piece," whose mystical mood is accentuated by trance-like accompaniment.