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Thomas Chapin: 1957-1998
Thomas Chapin
Saxophones, flute, percussion

Born: March 9, 1957 in Manchester, Connecticut
Died: February 17, 1998 in Providence, Rhode Island

Free Play of Irrational and Innovative

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Chapin, Thomas Thomas Chapin was closely linked with The Knitting Factory, a radical New York performance venue owned by Michael Dorf. The saxophonist was one of the earliest artists to be featured at the venue, and was the first to record when the Knitting Factory launched their own independent record label.

Chapin's music fitted readily into the adventurous experimental ethos encouraged at the venue, but his roots in more conventional jazz idioms were never too far away in his playing. His associations before concentrating on his own work as a band-leader and composer included a stint in the big band led by the vibraphone player Lionel Hampton, and another with the noted drummer, Chico Hamilton.

That grounding in a more mainstream jazz approach informed much of his music, and underpinned even his most radical experiments in pushing harmony into abstraction, and with unconventional tone effects. Although he had worked with his bass player, Mario Pavone, in various contexts throughout the 1980s, Chapin's own trio was formed in 1989, and had its first public performance at the Gas Station, a now defunct venue in New York's East Village, that summer.

They made their Knitting Factory debut in December of that year, and first toured Europe in the summer of 1991, where they returned each year. Shortly thereafter, Mike Sarin became the regular drummer in the trio, and that personnel remained his core group throughout the decade. His music developed steadily from his first album releases at the begining of the current decade. They included Radius (1990) on the Mu label, which featured the exotic addition of Ara Dinkjian's oud to a basic jazz quartet, and the trio releases Third Force (1991) and Anima (1992) from Knitting Factory.

If his ideas sometimes sounded a little forced and repetitive in these records, they were equally often compelling, and always highly energised, an abiding feature of his playing, and most overtly so in a live setting, where his vibrant energy and good humour were given free rein.

The release of Insomnia (1993), in which he had a larger nine-piece ensemble at his disposal, suggested a genuine talent for imaginative arrangements which the frantic trio sets had not brought out, and he built on that promise with Haywire (1996), in which his regular unit with Pavone and Sarin was augmented by a string trio of violin, cello and acoustic bass to good effect.

He cut two other intriguing records for the New York-based Arabesque Records, neither of which featured his trio. I've Got Your Number (1993) was a quartet-plus-percussionist session, while You Don't Know Me (1994) featured the great Tom Harrell on trumpet in a conventional quintet line-up.

The musical threads which linked him to many of the ground-breaking discoveries of the free jazz avant-garde movement of the 1960s were also reflected in the strong spiritual and philosophical dimension which he cultivated around his life and his music.

He wrote: "My work reflects my inner world. Many beings inhabit this world -- how am I to know them and ultimately love them, except to let them sing out through the music? My music is often a vent for the imaginary monsters who reside within the lunatic asylum of my mind and other crazy characters which form the amalgam of "me". 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 to be reflected."

The intensity of his work mirrored that conviction, and if he did not always succeed in achieving his aim of confounding the listener's expectations in his early records, his later work developed as an increasingly multi-faceted entity. He admired the Dadaists and Surrealists for "their use of irrationality as a hammer, bashing through the sleepy formality of accepted reality in order to taste a bit of the sweetness of higher realms", and his belief in that irrational element as a fundamental of artistic creation remained strong.

His principal instruments were alto saxophone and flute, but he also played soprano and baritone saxophone and alto flute, and a range of miscellaneous percussion instruments (another link with the 60s avant-garde).

Thomas Chapin died from the effects of leukemia.

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With 1 reader comment, posted March 22, 1999