Thomas Chapin was far and away the most significant sideman in Lionel Hampton’s 1980s bands, but tragically the legendary leader (an alumnus of the classic 1936 Benny Goodman Trio) would outlive his one-time music director. Chapin would take his music in a very different direction than Hamp’s massively swinging big band. It would be more accurate to say he explored many different directions. Yet, Chapin was poised to reach his broadest popular audiences just when he was diagnosed with Leukemia. Chapin’s Emmy-winning sister-in-law Stephanie J. Castillo chronicles his life and music in Thomas Chapin Night Bird Song (trailer here), which screens before a concert of Chapin’s music at Real Art Ways in Hartford this Sunday.
Chapin could pretty much play anything, but he is most closely associated with the adventurous improvised music scene that revolved around the Knitting Factory back in the day. He was a bright kid who was okay with playing the flute in his school band, but when took up alto everything clicked. The Phillips Academy (that’s Andover, not Exeter) must have had quite a band in his day, because that was where he met his lifelong friend, bassist Arthur Kell (FYI: a terrific musician, who I know through his gigging with Eri Yamamoto).
Thanks to some fortuitous luck and good karma, Chapin graduated from prep school and college, but his real education started in the Hampton band. Gates knew he had something special in the kid with the massive chops, so he did his best to hang onto Chapin for as long as possible. Eventually, Chapin struck out on his own, but he clearly processed Hampton’s commitment to showmanship. When he played, he put on a show and people listened.
Castillo, not necessarily a jazz expert before embarking on this project, nicely establishes the subtle shades and flavors of his music. Chapin was probably best known for his trio work with bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Michael Sarin, as well as a somewhat shifting quartet usually featuring pianist Peter Madsen, who all had an affinity for his passionate originals. Yet, he also recorded two straight ahead standards sessions for the Arabesque label. He could launch into some lofty improvisational heights, while maintaining a sense structure and rhythmic drive, allowing most jazz ears to follow him willingly.
How do you take the measure of a man’s life in one documentary film, especially an artist with the overflowing talent of Chapin? Clearly, it is a tough question for Castillo, since Night Bird Song currently clocks in at about two and a half hours. If you care about jazz and improvised music, it never drags (although there is a bit of repetition that could easily be snipped). However, it will never get the festival programming it deserves at its current length. Sadly, that’s just reality.