Review: Thomas Chapin, Night Bird Song

Stephanie Castillo's new movie about saxophonist Thomas Chapin brings Brian Morton as close as he could wish to the musician and child of nature

I’ve never much liked the "force of nature" cliché that pops up in obituaries, or the notion that a musician is simply "channelling" music on behalf of a higher power. The first seems hyperbolic; the second seems to deny all the craft, effort and commitment that music demands. Every now and then, though, one comes across someone who almost overturns these scruples. I’d prefer to say, without blurring the two clichés, that Tom Chapin (pictured right) was a child of nature. It was his textbook and his tutor. Few players have come so close to the expressive naturalism that Eric Dolphy espoused in his more experimental mode as Chapin did in his last couple of years, when he was struggling with leukaemia. He wasn’t "channelling". He just seemed unusually open to the sensory world and what he took in, he gave out again with interest.

I have to declare interest of another sort. I wrote liner notes for a posthumous release by this most exciting of contemporary saxophonists and flutists. They err on the side of breathlessness, but still fall short of capturing a man whose solos seemed so perfectly and so logically formed that one always had the impression that they must somehow always have been there, out in the unvoiced world, in the way that the sculpture is supposed to reside in the stone before a single chip has been taken. I met Tom three times, most memorably in a fast lift in a Warsaw hotel, where he whee-ed and scatted all the way to the top floor room where he gave us an interview of such charm and openness that it really should have been run unedited and at length instead of being chopped into easy bites.

The same with his music. Listen to a track in isolation, and it’s good, but not always grabbingly so. Listen to the work in depth, and view the life in the round and something much more remarkable emerges. Stephanie Castillo has an interest of her own to declare, in that she was related to Tom Chapin by marriage. But that closeness simply allows her access a certain level of intimacy with the subject and his many associates. She’s gathered interviews with fellow players, like Trio collaborator Mario Pavone (who I think was also in that stomach-dropping lift), former teachers like Paul H. Jeffery and Kenny Barron, as well as family members and friends. What emerges is a joyous but by no means hagiographical portrait of an artist whose short life seems as concentrated as Dolphy’s on making organised sound both beautiful and challenging.

Chapin moved easily from uptown to downtown in his playing style and associations. He started out as lead alto and MD for Lionel Hampton, but then explored the new avant-garde with the likes of John Zorn and Anthony Braxton before settling into the maturely philosophical music of Night Bird Song (the CD), Sky Piece and Ride; the last of these only appeared after his death in 1998, drawn from a huge archive of live material that continues to (let’s not say "fuel the legend") incarnate one of the music’s warmest and most dedicated good guys. It was a privilege to know him and Stephanie Castillo’s film brings him as close as you might wish.

More information about Thomas Chapin, Night Bird Song can be found on the movie's website.

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