Thomas Chapin - "I've Got Your Number" (Never Let Me Go)
The temptation is to view a posthumous release such as this using the artist’s demise as a lens, treating the music as some sort of inadvertent subtext, either reflecting a rage against dying light or pointing toward things never fully realized. The poignant liner notes to this three-disc set of quartet performances address Thomas Chapin’s tragic 1998 death and its ramifications from multiple perspectives, and this is tribute enough to the man and his struggle against illness. To these ears, Chapin’s music exudes a warmth, generosity of spirit and an infectious joy of living quite independent from mortality’s trappings and fruitless future speculation. These two newly released quartet concerts, from 1995 and 1996, are no exception.
Chapin’s saxophone and flute work was striking because of its gestures. His approach was magnanimous, especially in the presence of an audience. He was not one to layer complexities in a cerebral way; rather, everything he played had a direct impact as he surrounded each phrase with just the right amount of space. Listen to the gorgeously full flute tones on “Never Let Me Go” from the 1995 performance, amply captured at Flushing’s Town Hall. He opens the tune with rippling arpeggios that come to rest, with beautiful simplicity, at the point where breath is necessary. Pianist Peter Madsen, basist Kiyoto Fujiwara and Reggie Nicholson provide a continually shifting dynamic backdrop, giving Chapin the perfect platform on which to emote. This group can also raise the roof, as is evident when they tear through “Moonray” with the huge dynamic contrasts and abandon only musicians steeped in multiple traditions can control. Chapin honks, growls and slides his way through the nearly 20-minute rendition, and it’s difficult to tell whether he or Madsen brings more noise during their respective solos, much to the audience’s delight. Nicholson’s playing is as fluid as I’ve heard it as he changes feel and timbre at a moment’s notice.
The Knitting Factory’s comparatively claustrophobic acoustics, helped by some tasteful post-production reverb, do nothing to dampen the sound of the quartet Chapin formed in the middle 1990s, keeping Madsen and adding bassist Scott Colley and drummer Matt Wilson. This December 1996 date is its only one, and it’s a stunner. The performances are often edgy and urgent, as attested by the post-bop and post-Ayler thrusts, jabs and gutturals pervading “Flip Side”’s opening alto solo. Yet, the evening’s prize, and maybe the set’s as well, is Roland Kirk’s “Lovellevellilloqui.” Chapin groups are always tops in these modal/blues constructs, and if you’re not smiling by the end of this committed performance, listen again.
In important ways, this was just another Chapin performance, excellent as many of them were. It was also his last in New York. If you don’t know his compositions, or haven’t heard what he and his comrades can do to transform a tune or work a room, this set is an excellent place to dive in.