Toronto 1997
Boxholder BXH 033

All deaths are unexpected and untimely, and never more so than when the person is young and talented. Judging from the tribute CDs that have been released since that time, the death from leukemia of saxophonist/flutist Thomas Chapin at 40 in 1998 was particularly affecting. About six months before that the reedist, already contending with the disease and sustained chemotherapy, played a reunion concert in Toronto with pianist Borah Bergman with whom he had recorded the duo disc MU in 1992. The result is a short — about 45 minutes — but sweet, essay on the art of improvisation from two of its more profound practitioners.

Wonderkind Chapin had already established himself as the prototypical inside/outside saxophonist/flautist. He spent six years as musical director for Lionel Hampton big band starting at 23, then become part of the group of free-form players in downtown New York, usually in bands with bassist Mario Pavone. An idiosyncratic player and lone wolf, Bergman, 71 at the time, developed a unique equal handed approach to the piano on his own and over the past decade has duetted with other reedists such as Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker.

A five-part suite, this performance begins with definite, low frequency emphasis from Bergman that meets paper-shredding buzzing alto parts. Soon the pianist’s mid-tempo circular cadenzas double in intensity as he goes off on a multi-fingered exploration with right and left hands simultaneously propelled in different directions. In response, Chapin wails, slurs and screams, speeding up his playing as his multiphonics get more dissonant. Finally Bergman produces a rabbit punch of a left-handed blow, clip-clopping high-frequency tones as Chapin squeaks and peeps like a small feral animal.

This undercurrent of visceral musical violence continues throughout. At points however, the pianist leads with a sucker punch — an off-centre boogie woogie allusion that relates to his love of 1920s Chicago Jazz. Or he’ll introduce a phrase, such as the one at the beginning of “Part 4 A”, whose right-handed ringing cadenzas mirror Dave Burrell’s on his “West Side Story Suite” of 1968.

Just as unexpectedly Chapin infrequently interrupts descending reed scrapes and shrieks for wispy, rubato flute passages, which splinter into softer, legato whistling tones and eventually silence. He turns out a harder Rahsaan Roland Kirk-tone at points or, as on “Part 4 C” breathes through the bottom part of the flute almost as if he’s playing a Korean sho. When Bergman seems intent on sounding every key from the top to the bottom of the piano, Chapin responds by intensifying a honk that works its way up into mid-tempo, broad-brush Trane-like impressionism

Only in the penultimate section does the tempo slow down to dirge inclination, until Bergman’s left-handed thematic fragments reconstitute themselves into what almost appears to be a straight swing melody. Before long the pianist is making hedgehog leaps with his right hand, while his left moves along unhurried, until it’s stirred to unfettered abstraction by Chapin’s arching tone.

Putting aside key clipping for two handed commentary, Bergman ends the performance amplifying and underscoring nearly every one of Chapin’s sounds, whether they be miniscule notelets, a flutter-tongued melody or slurred multiphonics. Finally Bergman reprises a variation of the theme he began as closure for the extended duo improvisation.

Trying not to read too much into the circumstances, one supposition is that the vitality of this session can be attributed Bergman’s primeval improvisations. That’s why the reedist plays so well. When faced with a vibrant life force like the pianist, Chapin may have felt as if his life could be prolonged through concentrated, instant creation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: A Suite for Terry Chapin 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 A 5. Part 4 B 6. Part 4 C 7. Part 5

Personnel: Thomas Chapin (alto saxophone, flute); Borah Bergman (piano)