Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Thomas Chapin Night Bird Song
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Regardless, what is most striking about the film
is its feeling of intimacy. Castillo really gets Chapin’s friends and family to
open up while reminiscing about him. The vibe will most likely be further
reinforced during the early Tri-State Area screenings, when the Chapin network
comes out to support the film. Eighteen years after his death, Chapin’s music
remains a rich and potent listening pleasure. However, it is the connections he
forged that make Night Bird Song such
an emotional film to watch. This is not your typical pretentious jazz
hagiography. The feelings Castillo captures are real. Very highly recommended
for fans of the Downtown scene and documentary patrons with open minds and open
ears, Thomas Chapin Night Bird screens
this Sunday (3/6) in Hartford, at Real Art Ways.
Labels: Documentary, Thomas Chapin