Quartet Language is as much about history as it is about living in the moment. The 1992 live recording had to sit around for a decade before Playscape picked it up for release this year. Pianist Armen Donelian is a veteran whose credentials have never been in doubt: he first appeared on record a quarter century ago and has recently led a string of solid discs, mostly for Sunnyside. But in the end I suspect the decision to get Quartet Language out for public consumption might have more to do with Thomas Chapin than Donelian himself.
Chapin, a long-time associate of Playscape frequent fliers Michael Musillami and Mario Pavone, was quite active in New York in the '90s until his untimely passing in 1999 from leukemia. His often energetic playing, especially on alto saxophone, always marked him as a free-spirited individual. He's at the top of his game here with a combination of ragged tone and soulful delivery, always forward-looking, beckoning without weakness or compromise.
The five selections on this record, all Donelian compositions, are all about twelve minutes long, which means that everyone gets a chance to stretch out. They're marked by memorable melodies and the occasional odd meter. "Jabberwackey" opens the record with a dramatic flourish in 7/4, funky as hell and not the least bit awkward. Donelian's off-kilter comping, direct and staccato, finds its balance in the form of Chapin's slurred phrases. Armen Donelian is a very even-handed leader and his support often does more to propel the music than his solos, which are engaging in their own right.
The soft bolero entitled "Mexico" draws from deep roots on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a nice break from the faster-paced pieces on the record. "Loose as a Goose" sounds uncannily like Don Pullen's African Brazilian Connection: Chapin's insistent vibrato, Donelian's blues/gospel inflections, and the ever-bubbling support from the rhythm section.
The real strengths of this record are Donelian's diverse compositions and Chapin's talent for extracting the most from every phrase. Without either part, the record just wouldn't work. Mark Armen Donelian on your list of musicians to watch, and rejoice at another opportunity to hear Thomas Chapin do his thing.
Visit Playscape Recordings and Armen Donelian on the web.
Personnel: Armen Donelian: piano; Thomas Chapin: alto saxophone; Calvin Hill: bass; Jeff Williams: drums.