Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Chapin, Thomas (Durfee)

Alto saxophonist and flutist Thomas Chapin was a spontaneous traditionalist, whose quirky music is playful yet firmly rooted in swing, melody, and the blues. Chapin's ability to balance his own imaginative approach with the skills he learned alongside vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, drummer Chico Hamilton and others made him a key player on New York's experimental music scene until his death from leukemia at age forty in 1998.

Thomas Chapin

Thomas Durfee Chapin was born in Manchester, Connecticut, on March 9, 1957 and started on piano at age three, before moving to the flute at age ten and saxophone at age 16. He studied classical music and jazz while at the Phillips Andover Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, and later was an undergraduate at the University of Miami for one semester, then the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked with Jackie McLean and Paul Jeffrey, from 1975 to 1978. He then followed Jeffrey to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he also studied with pianist and Ted Dunbar, and completed his undergraduate education in 1980.

Initially influenced by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Chapin’s most profound early influence was saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, after he stumbled across a record by the blind, iconoclastic musician. “Kirk was really important to me, because he was a person who is neither in or out,” Chapin noted in a 1991 interview. “He is so deeply rooted in tradition, and yet the spectrum in which he operated was total.”

Indeed, Chapin's affinity with Kirk was profound, as can be heard on the track " Drinkin'"from I've Got Your Number, the1993 album Chapin recorded for Arabesque Records with pianist Ronnie Matthews, bassist Ray Drummond,and drummer Steve Johns. Like Kirk, Chapin's playhing is energetic yet meditative approach, and he develops his sardonic ideas with fleet, dark tones.

Chapin toured and recorded as lead alto saxophonist in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra from 1981 to 1986, serving as the band’s musical director from 1983. He worked briefly with Chico Hamilton in 1989, and he performed and recorded with the free-improvisation band Machine Gun, Ray Drummond, the Anthony Braxton–Mario Pavone Quintet, and Ned Rothenberg’s Double Band, and in a duo with Borah Bergman. In 1993 he replaced alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett in Kiyoto Fujiwara’s group Manhattan Graffiti Four, and stayed with the group until 1996.

Chapin led his own sextet from 1981 to 1984, then formed a quartet. He also led a group called Spirit Rebellious in 1988 and 1989, then formed a trio with bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Steve Johns, who was replaced by Michael Sarin in 1992.

Chapin's trio with Pavone and Sarin became the focus of his creative activity for the remainder of his life, recording frequently for producer Michael Dorf's Knitting Factory label, including the posthumous boxed set Alive. Chapin can also be heard with a 1991 group led by Pavone on the track "Tepito," which memorably paired him, for the only time on record, with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.

Chapin's playing stands out for his ability to move between and combine influences from swing, bebop, and harder-edged avant-gardism. “Ahab’s Leg,”for example, from the Alive boxed set, is a jagged succession of propulsive bass riffs, rushes through changing time signatures, and quick breaks, which coalesce into a larger statement. “Iddly,” from the same set, is a rhythm 'n' blues-flavored vamp with a march-like beat, which creates a backdrop for Chapin to offer a number of surprises: he quotes both “Boogie Stop Shuffle” by bassist Charles Mingus, another alumnus of Hampton's band, and Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe.” On “Seeds,” from his trio's 1991 live album Anima,Chapin plays a delicate, moving alto flute solo with nearly classical articulation.

Chapin died from leukemia in Providence, Rhode Island on February 13, 1998. Fortunately for listeners, he left behind a nuanced body of recorded work which reflect his uncommon ability to convey multiple threads of information, without repeating ideas, which has had a lasting influence on the rising generation of jazz instrumentalists.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

Third Force (1991, Knitting Factory)

Anima (1991, Knitting Factory)

Insomnia (1992, Knitting Factory)

Night Bird Song (1992, Knitting Factory)

Haywire (1996, Knitting Factory)

Sky Piece (1996, Knitting Factory)

Alive (1999, Knitting Factory)

As co-leader with Borah Bergman:

Inversions (1992, Muworks)

Toronto 1997 (1997, Boxholder)

as a sideman:

Anthony Braxton/Mario Pavone Quintet: Seven Standards 1995 (1995, Knitting Factory)

Medeski Martin & Wood: Notes from the Underground (1992, hap-Jones)

Mario Pavone: Sharpeville (1985, Alacra, reissued by Playscape)

Mario Pavone: song for (Septet) (1993, New World CounterCurrents)

Mario Pavone: Dancers Tales (1996, Knitting Factory)

Contributor: Sean Singer