To get a handle on the musical scope of Thomas Chapin, look no further than the second CD of this three-disc set. Taken from a 1995 live performance, it begins with Thelonious Monk’s rare waltz “Ugly Beauty,” followed by Charlie Parker’s equally deep cut “Red Cross” (which lasts over 15 fun-filled minutes), into the Glen Campbell pop hit “Wichita Lineman.” The late alto saxophonist approaches each song with the same degree of seriousness, whether caressing the ballad, honking out an unaccompanied postbop intro or shedding some deserved light on what might be written off as middle-of-the-road fluff.
Jazz history has more than its fair share of gifted artists who died too young, but Chapin’s bio hits harder. A regular at the Knitting Factory club and on its companion label, Chapin, on alto and flute, dabbled in avant-garde situations but often stuck with a more aggressive version of straight-ahead jazz. Diagnosed with leukemia, he died at age 40 in 1998, well into a career that was catching fire and about to advance, as these recordings show. All three of these discs feature him with a quartet, a new setting after leading trios for many years.
The first two discs come from a 1995 performance at New York’s Flushing Town Hall. While the aforementioned second set includes unique covers, the first is no slouch either. Artie Shaw’s “Moonray” is especially captivating, with bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara thumping out some descending double-stops, over which Chapin’s alto dances softly before everyone locks into a straight 4/4 rhythm. “You Don’t Know Me” is another chestnut that might seem destined for the cocktail lounge, but the quartet distills the syrup from it. Chapin’s own writing is featured in the extended “Opuwo” and “Scratch Boogie.” The former reveals his Jackie McLean influence in terms of composition, with its move between flowing rubato and steady swing, and in alto tone, though his sound isn’t quite as tart as his predecessor.
After the three-way hit in set two, Chapin brings out his flute for the lyrical title track, which he plays with the same type of muscle he brings to his saxophone. Throughout both of these discs, Fujiwara adds subtle coloring to a variety of moods, and it’s especially noticeable here. Pianist Peter Madsen works equally well in a clean situation or stirring up a cloud of dust.
As good as the first two discs are, disc three blows them out of the water. Recorded in December 1996, a few months before Chapin became ill, he teams up with Madsen, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Matt Wilson, in a lineup Chapin envisioned as a supergroup that would help him reach a bigger audience. He couldn’t have been more accurate, at least in terms of the chemistry. Onstage at the Knitting Factory they tackle the saxophonist’s frenetic “Whirlygig” with fury.
By contrast, “Big Maybe” sounds more like a tone poem, with Colley laying down a hypnotic foundation. First on flute, then alto, Chapin rises over a wave of sounds. “Sky Piece,” which Chapin also recorded with his trio, begins with an unaccompanied Colley solo before Chapin enters on flute, recorded with the perfect amount of reverb to accent the minor melody’s haunting, lyrical qualities. They end the set with a rousing rendition of “Lovellevellilloqui,” which comes from one of Chapin’s other heroes, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Never Let Me Go includes a booklet with a few essays and remembrances by family and bandmates. While such exercises can be maudlin or light on details, Madsen’s contribution offers a great appreciation of the man and his music. Hopefully there’s enough material still in the vaults for a part two.