Friday, December 14, 2012

Here to Stay: Thomas Chapin’s Never Let Me Go”

While waiting for my copy of Never Let Me Go, a 3-CD box set of Thomas Chapin’s quartet recordings, I realized that I’d heard Thomas play primarily in quartet settings, usually on the several times a month he played in Connecticut jazz clubs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Late in 1980 or early in 1981, the freshness of his music helped bring me back to the
jazz scene after a three-year hiatus that came because I found myself anticipating the soloist's next “sound of surprise” too frequently in clubs and concerts. When I heard Thomas play a familiar pattern, he'd spin it in an unexpected yet unerringly logical direction. I couldn’t anticipate his next line, even when I tried. His love of making music generated a contagious exuberance that led his rhythm sections to transcend themselves or risk falling behind. On more than one occasion, the healing power of his music lifted me from the funk of a foul day into the ecstasy of the moment. The music on these recordings characterizes the transformative powers of Thomas’s playing. Simply put, it features some of his finest playing on record. If you’ve never heard Thomas Chapin before, Never Let Me Go will introduce you to the music of one of the most accomplished and innovative saxophonists and flutists of the 1980s and 1990s.

At the time Never Let Me Go was recorded, in 1995 and 1996, Thomas had achieved a technical mastery of his instruments that allowed him to express his ideas with a facility almost as natural as breathing. 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. He was a musical omnivore whose passion for ethnic music led him to play many wind and percussion instruments from other cultures. He performed punk rock, tango, and classical music, and backed poets, always playing his distinctive style with an spot-on sensitivity to the musical context. His intellectual and emotional capacity enabled him to to synthesize his broad musical vocabulary into a core expression appropriate to the musical moment. This box set doesn’t pretend to present the full breadth of his musical vision, but it presents him in one of his most comfortable, familiar and accessible formats, the quartet.

Never Let Me Go emphasizes the jazz at the core of Chapin’s sensibility, and offers a musical stew with more than enough spice to heat and flavor it. The repertoire itself reflects Thomas’s taste for challenging material. His original compositions reveal the passion of his lyricism (“Sky Piece”) and his willingness to improvise within complex structures, as well as create open-ended structures that afforded him maximum creative freedom. In the fare offered here, we see the choices of material that made Thomas unique among his colleagues. In addition to his own compositions, he chooses standards you don’t commonly hear. Chapin devours the changes of the opening tunes, “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Moon Ray,” with joyful passion. On the latter, he risks playing an extended interpolation from “Nature Boy” beyond “Moon Ray’s” harmonic structure, but deftly ends the phrase within the structure and refers to the passage several choruses later during a climactic build. On the bop classic, “Red Cross,” Chapin devours the changes, incorporating pianist Peter Madsen's substitutions and building to shrieking climaxes that stretch but retain their ties to the tune’s harmonic structure and tonality. He also delves into popular music that I’ve yet to hear any other jazz musician attempt: Ray Charles’ 1962 hit, “You Don’t Know me” and the 1960s hit “Wichita Lineman.” In a live performance, he once gave “Red River Valley” a decidedly urban interpretation. Thomas also recorded several lesser-known Thelonious Monk compositions, capturing their spirit with sensitivity while adding the distinctive Chapin interpretation, a gesture of respect deeper than mere imitation. Disc 2 of this box set opens with Chapin and pianist Peter Madsen rendering Monk’s seldom-played “Ugly Beauty” as a sensitive duet.

The other members of the rhythm section aren’t as familiar to me as Madsen. In conversations, Thomas had mentioned touring Japan with bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara, but never mentioned the quartet to me as a working unit. Thomas usually spoke in very general terms about his projects, I assume because any new artistic undertaking carries as much uncertainty as enthusiasm. But Fujiwari and Scott Colley, whose work I’m hearing for the first time, accompany Chapin with drive and empathy, as do drummers Reggie Nicholson and Matt Wilson. Among the drummers I’ve heard with Thomas, Nicholson and Wilson tend to play the deeper tones of their trap sets, compared to Michel Sarin and Steve Johns, whose work I’ve heard more frequently.

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. That he is irreplaceable is a given. Another given is that Never Let Me Go is a keeper.