Never have I felt the depth and power of contrast musically as much as playing with the late and great saxophone/flautist Thomas Chapin who passed away at the age of 40 from leukemia a little over a year ago. For the last five years of his life I was fortunate to be his pianist whenever he used one. Thomas often preferred the trio format playing with the superb bassist Mario Pavone and either the great drummer Steve Johns or the equally phenomenal Mike Sarin. But he also loved to use piano and that's where I came in, playing with him at the Village Gate, Iridium, Five Spot and most frequently at the Knitting Factory. We also played together in Mario Pavone's groups recording three great CD's and Thomas played in my own groups as well. I f you were ever lucky enough to hear Thomas live or hear any of his many CD's you would have learned the meaning of the word contrast. Extreme contrast was in his nature. Thomas could play totally out and wild, screaming emotionally like his hero Rahsaan Roland Kirk and then turn around and play the most beautiful ballad you ever heard with a complete knowledge of harmony (he studied at Rutgers with Kenny Barron). He could swing so hard (he was the musical director for Lionel Hampton for many years) and then just as easily destroy it. His use of dynamics and unusual sounds on his instruments could keep an audience on the edge of their seats. He could make the corniest country-western song sound like the greatest piece ever written or take a completely serious piece and poke fun at it until the audience was laughing as hard as he was. But no matter what he played he did it with incredible honesty, creativity, openness and soulfulness.
Thomas Chapin was not only an incredible improviser but he was also a great composer. His many fantastic compositions once again show his love for a wide variety of contrasting styles and can be heard on his many recordings. Besides composing the music for his many trio CD's he also wrote the music for a trio with brass CD as well as a trio with strings CD all for the Knitting Factory Label and he recorded two more straight-ahead recordings for Arabesque Records. I recorded with him on a CD entitled, You Don't Know Me for Arabesque with the great Tom Harrell on trumpet, superb bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara and the wonderful Reggie Nicolson on drums. Thomas' last recording for Knitting Factory is called Sky Piece and was chosen on many top ten lists of last year. It's now being talked about as 'The Album' of the 90's pointing the way for the future of jazz.
Thomas was a brilliant thinker, bursting with energy and he loved to talk a lot about his many ideas. We would talk for hours on the phone about art, music, philosophy, spirituality, women, and life... And Thomas loved to laugh. He had an infectious laugh that could be heard from miles away. Like me he also loved world music especially African and Asian music. He had an incredible collection of recordings from all over Africa and Asia and had a great knowledge of each countries musical ideas, styles, performers and history. He studied African rhythms, which he incorporated into his music and he used many unusual scales from Asia as well. He would bring his Mbira (African Thumb Piano) to practice on whenever we were on tour in Japan together with the great band of Kiyoto Fujiwara (Thomas replaced Kenny Garrett who was in the band for many years). Thomas was always talking to people, always making spiritual connections, always running through the world like a brilliant excited laughing child looking for cool new places, people and ideas.
Thomas Chapin was one of the greatest musicians and finest people that I have ever met and he touched me very deeply with his music, his wisdom and his laughter. Long live Thomas Chapin.