Thomas Chapin’s Life and Music Celebrated on Film and in Concert at Hartford's Real Art Ways | Connecticut Public Radio
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Thomas Chapin’s Life and Music Celebrated on Film and in Concert at Hartford's Real Art Ways

Mar 2, 2016

Thomas Chapin first honed his skills as a teenager dazzling crowds in Hartford jazz clubs.

In a heart-wrenching, unforgettable performance, Thomas Chapin -- a gaunt, desperately ill, but still brilliant and resilient 40-year-old cutting-edge saxophonist/flutist and composer -- played his final concert on February 1, 1998, to a loving SRO audience of friends, family, and fans at Cheney Hall in Manchester.

Just 12 days later, Chapin died, ending his long, heroic battle with leukemia. His work was a continuously crackling celebration of life. 

In just a few allotted years of intensely compacted creativity, the phenomenal musician, who first honed his skills as a wunderkind teenager dazzling crowds in Hartford jazz clubs, created a rich legacy as a rising, young innovator. With world enough and time, his already marvel-packed career promised endless possibilities.

Modest and always caring about others, well-liked by everybody whose lives he touched, a consummate musician and an intellectual with insatiable curiosity about virtually everything under or even beyond the sun, the globe-trotting Manchester native had made a distinguished mark for himself through his acclaimed, still timelessly relevant, robust recordings and compositions.

Whether early on at Hartford’s legendary 880 Club or later at famous venues like the Knitting Factory, the Manhattan mecca for the avant-garde, Chapin’s visceral, lyrical, cerebral inventions generated tremendous excitement and inspiration, creating vivid impressions in the moment that still echo indelibly in the minds of countless listeners, even 18 years after his tragic death.

Everyone in the audience that night at Chapin’s fateful final concert knew that the ravaged but heroic figure on stage was extremely ill, even, more than likely, terminally so.

Chapin stepped on stage and jokingly apologized that he was a bit rusty.

But every soul in the enthralled, sometimes hushed, sometimes boisterously appreciative audience also hoped and prayed for some kind miracle for this physically ill but spiritually unbroken man who had been graced since youth with such a splendid, life-affirming creative gift.

A miracle did, in fact, occur that night right on stage in full view of the 350 devout believers who had congregated for the love-fest farewell at the historic hall. 

But it was a musical, not a medical, miracle.

And it was performed by Chapin himself through the magic of his impassioned, mesmerizing music; his irrepressible presence that created an illusion for an hour-and-a-half or so, that, just maybe, somehow all would be well; along with his characteristic affability, imperishable graciousness and signature sunny sense of humor even at the darkest hour.

Stepping out of the blackness from behind the curtain and into the bright light on stage, Chapin, who hadn’t been physically able to play in public for months, jokingly apologized that he “was a bit rusty” before launching into his profoundly moving, lustrously, rust-free performance.    

The movie poster for Night Bird Song, a documentary about Thomas Chapin.
Credit The Thomas Chapin Film Project

Chapin’s remarkable art, accomplishments, legacy, and tragically foreshortened but full, generous life will be celebrated on Sunday, March 6, at 2:00 pm with the first public screening of his bio, Thomas Chapin, Night Bird Song, a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Stephanie Castillo at Hartford’s Real Art Ways.    

The documentary, which was four years in the making, runs 150 minutes, featuring 40 on-camera interviews and invaluable archived footage and audio recordings. There will be a short intermission at mid-point, with a Q&A at the end. 

Later, there will be a one-hour concert paying tribute to Chapin’s brass music at 6:15 pm.

Dave Ballou, the arranger/trumpeter, will conduct. Among the participants are two original members of Chapin’s celebrated trio, bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Michael Sarin. Trombonist Peter McEachern, another one of Chapin’s early collaborators and close friends, performs in the ensemble. Pavone, Sarin, and McEachern were original players on an acclaimed Chapin CD, Insomnia: Thomas Chapin Trio, Plus Brass.

Also featured in the ensemble are the noted saxophonists Marty Ehrlich and Tony Malaby, trombonist Art Baron, tubaist Ben Stapp, and trumpeter Nick Roseboro.

Just three days after the Hartford screening, Chapin would have turned 59, a milestone that should have marked many miles to go and infinitely more marvelous promises to keep. Admission: film, $11.00; concert, $20.00. Information: realartways.org and (860) 232-1006.

New Haven’s New Season for New Music

In a rite of spring revered by all true believers in creative music, Firehouse 12, New Haven’s temple of the avant-garde, initiates its 2016 Spring Jazz Series on Friday, March 18, with the first of 13-weekly concerts featuring premier practitioners of improvised music.

Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid launches the series, which runs on consecutive Friday nights, concluding on June 10 with percussionist Jay Rosen’s RDM Trio.

Mario Pavone.
Credit Steven laschever / mariopavone.com

Back for encore appearances are such Firehouse favorites as the celebrated bassists and Connecticut natives, Mario Pavone and Ben Allison, each leading his own band. Besides Reid on opening night, new faces at the new music haven include Will Vinson, who leads his quartet, and the legendary saxophonist and innovator Oliver Lake, who appears with the OGJB Quartet.

Here’s the complete lineup:

Tomeka Reid Quartet, March 18; Ralph Alessi Baida Quartet, March 25; Will Vinson Quartet, April 1; OGJB Quartet, April 8; Ari Hoenig Trio, April 15; and Chris Lightcap & Bigmouth, April 22.

Also, Clarence Penn and Penn Station, April 29; Allison Miller, BOOM TIC BOOM, May 6; Ben Allison, May 13; Katie Bull Group, May 20; Daniel Levin Quartet, May 27; Mario Pavone, June 3; Jay Rosen-RDM Trio, June 10.

Each concert features sets at 8:30 and 10:00 pm. Tickets for all events are $20.00 for the first set and $15.00 for the second. They can be purchased online at firehouse12.com, at (203) 785-0468, or in person at the box office beginning at 7:00 pm the night of the show. A limited number of season passes good for admission to both sets of every concert are also available for $220.

Concerts are held in the venue’s acoustically engineered recording studio, a studious listener’s delight. 

Yale’s Consummate Summit

Yale’s Ellington Jazz Series presents an extraordinary piano summit meeting featuring two long enshrined keyboard icons, Barry Harris and Toshiko Akiyoshi, plus the phenomenal young pianist Aaron Diehl on Friday, March 4, at 7:30 pm at Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, New Haven. Box office: (203) 432-4158.

Buttonwood Bashes

March Madness reigns at Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree as the cozy, neighborhood arts and cultural center hosts four highly promising jazz concerts.    

The mini-series opens with a fast-break on Friday, March 4, at 8:00 pm with a high-scoring duo featuring saxophonist Charles Neville and bassist Avery Sharpe. Tickets: $25.00 at the door.

Charles Neville and Avery Sharpe.
Credit Facebook

Up next on March 12, the gifted saxophonist Kris Allen and his quartet give a sneak preview of its upcoming June release, Beloved, on Truth Revolution Records. Pianist/vocalist Warren Byrd, a globally-migrating Hartford native, swoops into the Buttonwood roost, a familiar habitat, on March 19.

Versatile vocalist/composer Katie Bull and her bearishly genre-defying, China shop-breaking, cliché-shattering cast of cool iconoclasts bring their lower Manhattan experimental edge to Middletown on March 25. Information: buttonwood.org and (860) 347-4957.

Please submit press releases on upcoming events at least two weeks before publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments welcome.