Chapín, Thomas

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Chapín, Thomas

Chapín, Thomas, American saxophonist b. Manchester, Conn., March 9, 1957, d. Providence, R.I., Feb. 13, 1998. Though leukemia tragically ended his life when he was only 40 years old, he spent nearly a decade working as a leader and left behind a legacy of many excellent albums and performances and a reputation as a versatile musician’s musician who was unfailingly gentlemanly. He moved freely between the dual (and sometimes dueling) N.Y.C, factions of the avant-garde downtown scene and the mainstream scene and was respected in both. Though in his trio work he would sometimes play outside time, unlike some avant-gardists he often played metered music even in non-mainstream settings. His natural exuberance made him an expressive showman, yet there was never the slightest sense that he compromised his musicality in any context; he was able to communicate directly and unassumingly in even the most challenging sonic contexts.

He attended the Hartt School of Music at the Univ. of Hartford and later went to Rutgers Univ., studying with Jackie McLean, Paul Jeffrey, Ted Dunbar, and Kenny Barron. Starting in 1981 he spent six years as the musical director for Lionel Hampton’s big band; he also worked in Chico Hamilton’s group for a while. In the late 1980s he formed his own groups and soon made a name for himself. When the downtown N.Y.C, club The Knitting Factory started a record label, he was the first artist it signed. Bassist Mario Pavone was a frequent collaborator, and they worked closely in Chapin’s trio and in Pavone’s own bands. His versatility made him a popular addition to many groups, from obscure avant-garde big bands in which he was sometimes the most famous player (Walter Thompson Big Band, Joe Gallant’s Illuminati) and improvisors on the fringes of jazz (John McCracken, Machine Gun) to such notables as John Zorn, Ned Rothenberg, and Anthony Braxton.

His final album was recorded in 1996 but delayed until he could work on its production during a period of remission from his illness. It came out the same week he died. The Chapin-penned poem in the CD booklet, called Sky Piece, captures its mood perfectly: “So much sky/in the space of desert/my soul/rises/from a mournful Earth/into a clarity/above Time./While Time is/it is best to be/in both worlds/Music/as the bridge.”


Radius (1990); Knitting Factory Tours Europe (1991); Third Force (1991); Inversions (1992); Insomnia (1992); Anima (1992); I’ve Got Your Number (1993); Menagerie Dreams (1994); Song for (Septet) (1994); You Don’t Know Me (1995); What Is Jazz? 1996 (1996); Haywire (1996); Dancers Tales (1997); Seven Standards 1996 (1997); Sky Piece (1998).

—Steve Holtje