Another reason for not immediately releasing the Night Bird Song tracks was the opportunity to take the Trio into newer areas by adding a five-piece brass section.
Chapin's affiliation with the Knitting Factory was particularly valuable for more ambitious projects of this type. Where time and budget constraints would force most jazz musicians with expanded ensembles to enter the studio once and hope for the best, Chapin had the opportunity to develop this music over a month of Monday nights at the Knit in December 1992. These performances allowed the musicians to grow into the material. They also added the invaluable component of audience interaction that mere rehearsals can never provide, and that was at the heart of Chapin's approach.
Several commentators saw Insomnia as Chapin's attempt to incorporate James Brown funk into his music. Chapin might not have disagreed with this view ("I deny nothing," he commented in the disc's liner notes regarding influences); but a more likely source is one that Chapin himself cites - his former boss Lionel Hampton. The charging riffs, extroverted tempo and chant of "Golgotham/Bone Dance" on the stops-out "Golgotham" are pure Gates; and the diverse and detailed orchestrations, particularly outstanding on "Equatoria" and the title track, reveal some of the lessons Chapin learned as Hampton's musical director. Other sources also peak through, like the echo of shakuhachi on the meditative "Trio II."
The five brass players recruited for this project were well matched with the Trio and each other. Trumpeter Al Bryant had also been a Hampton sideman during Chapin's tenure, and trombonist Peter McEachern was a longtime Connecticut associate who apppeared on Chapin's first Alacra LP. Frank London, Curtis Fowlkes and Marcus Rojas were all part of the Knit scene. They work together beautifully as a section, and their individual sounds illuminate the ensemble passages. Special credit goes to the Herculean-lunged Rojas, who attacks the bass parts like Pavone's brass twin. (Ray Stewart is a worthy sub on "Equatoria.")
Chapin, so often identified with manic energy, did not simply turn the brass loose. He chose instead to explore a full range of moods and emotions, including restrained collective improvisation on "Coup d'Etat." Virtuosity permeates the music without slapping the listener in the face, and the expanded ensemble exudes the same sensitivity that is revealed in Chapin's control of the alto's full range on "Coup" or the lengthy decompression that the trio realizes on "Trio 1."
1993 was a year for traveling. Chapin visited South Africa (where he played with pianist Hotep Galeta) and Namibia, and performed in Europe with fellow saxophonist Ned Rothenberg's Double Band. The trio took its music to Japan (where it was joined by trumpeter Dave Douglas) and Hawaii, the home of Chapin's wife Terri Castillo. There were also appearances by the more "in the tradition" Thomas Chapin quartet, which included Ronnie Mathews, Ray Drummond and Steve Johns when it recorded I've Got Your Number for Arabesque in January. That album helped persuade the more conservative wing of the jazz community that Chapin could not be dismissed as a mere wild-eyed radical, but it did not alter the saxophonist's own priorities. "I get to do it all in the trio," he stressed in an interview published in the magazine Skronk at the time he was in the studio for Arabesque. "It's more complete."
Menagerie Dreams, Chapin's collection of music about animals and dreams for the trio plus guests, was recorded in June 1994 and is one of his most memorable achievements for several reasons. It was the first trio recording to include material by outside composers, and these pieces would remain in the band's book and complement Chapin's own original visions. The Ellington/Strayhorn ballad "Daydream" could be Chapin's tribute to Sonny Rollins. It arrives on the _Way Out West_ cowpoke lope of Pavone's bass, which gives a thoroughly unique spin to the melody, and Chapin throws in an even more direct nod to Rollins by quoting "Airegin" at the end of the first bridge. The arrangement makes wonderful use of tempo changes and gives Pavone 16 bars to air his more traditional chops. "Poignant Dream" is a more conventional ballad reading of a lovely tune composed by pianist Borah Bergman, a duo partner of Chapin's. (They released the album Inversions on MU in 1992, and performed a set at the 1997 Toronto Jazz Festival. Bergman did "Poignant" as a solo in 1984 on his Soul Note album Upside Down Visions.) The mood here recalls the anguished ballads that former Chapin teacher Jackie McLean served up with Mal Waldron in the '50s, though Chapin's own lyricism comes through. Playing this track on a blindfold test would generate some interesting responses.
"Raise Four," which is a neat trick for a quadruped, might be considered part of the album's animal theme. This is hard-driven blues playing, with use of thematic material by each member of the trio that composer Monk would have appreciated, and another effective arrangement that employs distinct riffs behind each soloist. There is an echo of Charles Mingus in Pavone's "Foxwoods Stomp," which was retitled "Foxwood Shuffle" and specifically dedicated to Mingus in Pavone's 1996 sextet version (including Chapin and Steve Johns) on the Knitting Factory album Dancers Tales. This invigorating study in tension and release, together with "The Night Hog," introduces Chapin's baritone saxophone, an instrument on which he displays tenderness and droll wit as well as the expected power.
"Hog" is one of five Chapin originals on the album, all of which address the menagerie theme and look beyond simple caricature. "A Drunken Monkey," for example, is rather elegant, one of Chapin's most seductive and complex melodies, with much swaying and weaving but no stumbling. Sarin is at his best here, setting the tempo, anticipating the thematic accents, applying total focus to the climactic alto/drums duet.
For once the billing of "special" guests is earned, as both John Zorn and Vernon Frazer join the trio to illuminate key aspects of Chapin's art. Zorn helps to announce the menagerie in his soaring, squawking avian alto duet with Chapin on "Bad Birdie," a reworking of "Trio 1" from _Insomnia_; and his presence drives home how quick cuts and cartoon-like juxtapositions were also central to Chapin's approach. They are expressed quite differently, of course, just as Chapin and Zorn the alto soloists apply the inspiration of Ornette Coleman through their own personal prisms. This is another great arrangement, especially when the crowing figure that opened "Birdie" returns to underpin Pavone's solo.
The poet and journalist Vernon Frazer is an old friend from Connecticut who wrote about Chapin frequently and was another of the saxophonist's duo partners. He joins the trio (plus Zorn, who does the alto dancing while Chapin and Frazer chant the title) for "Put Your Quarter in and Watch the Chicken Dance," a words-and-music take on performers and their place in the wider world that could be thought of as a companion piece, 37 years later, to the Mingus/Jean Sheppard collaboration "The Clown." Chapin might have been commenting on this piece when he wrote, appropos "Geek Gawkin'" on his next CD, that "My music is often a vent for the imaginary monsters who reside within...They appear and tell their story, receiving recognition, love and ridicule. Their manifestation is a way for me to get to know myself, to reflect and be reflected. And how I love to stare! Am I the Geek who is being gawked at, or am I the gawker at the Geek?" His brilliant flute work on this track suggest that, whether Geek or gawker, Chapin took tremendous sustenance from the very act of performing. As Frazer puts it so succinctly, "Motion is emotion & music makes me spin."
As usual, both Chapin and the trio kept busy after the _Menagerie_ sessions. Among band highlights were debuts in the United Kingdom in September 1994 and the Newport Jazz Festival in August 1995. The Newport gig, which was filmed and later telecast nationally, was particularly well received and should have quelled any lingering doubts about Chapin's ability to connect with a "mainstream" audience. There was also his second Arabesque album, _You Don't Know Me_, recorded shortly after _Menagerie_ with Tom Harrell, Peter Madsen, Kiyoto Fujiwara and Reggie Nicholson and featuring the five-part "Safari Notebook" suite inspired by Chapin's earlier visit to Africa. All of this led to another expanded trio project developed workshop-style at the Knitting Factory, _Haywire_, which was recorded live with a three-piece string section in January 1996.
In his excellent liner notes, Chapin explained that the album title refers to "the state of mind where normal connections are severed, and new possibilities arise." He was fortunate to explore this creative world with musicians who were willing to proceed with equal boldness on his "mission towards self-awareness." Pavone and Sarin were essential partners at this point - "To me this is not just a musical group, it's a magic triangle, a _generator!_" Chapin said of the trio - and the added string players were also old friends. Chapin and Kiyoto Fujiwara, who provides the diverse second bass parts, had worked together in various settings for over a decade, including a few Japanese tours with Fujiwara's own group and on Chapin's _You Don't Know Me_ album. Cellist Boris Rayskin had been in New York since 1989, and brought his Leningrade Conservatory training into a variety of improvising situations. Most critical was the input of violinist and concertmaster Mark Feldman, another exemplar of creativity without stylistic boundaries, and a kindred spirit whose solos are among the disc's highlights.
Chapin describes the title track and "Geek Gawkin'" as compositions "grown as trio pieces first, with an ear twoard expansion." They are excellent forums for his unfettered saxophone improvising, on alto and baritone, respectively, and they allow the string players to riff and shout with the presence of a sax section. "Haywire" also features excellent solos by Feldman and Sarin (the latter on Pavone's steel-cable lines), while "Geek" threads the complex thematic material through episodes by all of the musicians, including an arco duet by Pavone and Fujiwara and an episode with Chapin using a duck call like a more "in the tradition" John Zorn. "Needless to say, there is the strong influence of many a well-spent hour watching cartoons here," Chapin commented. He taps far different emotions on the beautiful Enrico Rava waltz "Diva," which features Rayskin as well as the leader's on mezzo-soprano saxophone. Chapin may have had this track in mind when he commented in the liner notes that "I want to give you the opposite of what you expect, maybe. Unabashed beauty can be a shock, if applied at the right moment (context)."
The album's centerpiece is "The Devil's Hopyard," a five-part suite written specifically for the trio plus strings and commemorating a night spent in "a state park near the east-central Connecticut shore with a definite `Legend of Sleepy Hollow' feel." The concept places diverse demands upon the strings, from Chapin's direction to "play spooky" on the opening "Eidolon" to the chamber-music parts that rub up against the trio untamed in the latter parts of "Bugbears." For this listener, "Hoofin'" and "At Peace with My Demons" are the highlights, and among the best music Chapin recorded. "Hoofin'" features stunning ensemble work by Chapin and Feldman and a Chapin flute solo that hints at reggae and puts the techniques he learned from Roland Kirk to personal use. "At Peace" begins with a classical stateliness, the melody stated by the strings and gathering itself proudly before Chapin's alto enters and improvises with pace, pinpoint shading and a poetic spirit. Beautiful writing, and beautiful playing.
by Bob Blumenthal, jazz writer-critic, The Boston Globe