Pianist Armen Donelian made the acquaintance of alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin in 1988. Ten years later, at the age of 40, Chapin died of leukemia. Rewind to two spring nights in 1992. At the New York jazz club Visiones, Chapin shares the stage with Donelian, bassist Calvin Hill, and drummer Jeff Williams. Five tracks of intricately composed, expansively improvised music were recorded that evening. The album, Quartet Language
, illustrated with one of bassist Mario Pavone's notoriously abstract photos, sounds of palpable emotions, dramatic landscapes, and garrulous characters.
An acrid alchemy festers among these players, especially Donelian and Chapin. Memorable moments, like the catchy 11-note theme of Jabberwackey and the swaying intro of 'Loose As A Goose,' are repeated, reversed, and explored until the players get caught up in a carousel of notes, tones, times, and timbre, all held together by Williams' intrepid drumming.
'The Germ' is a 12-minute exercise in extremes. Chapin's lavish gallivants on his horn are countered by Donelian's foray into minimalist syncopation. Then for the solos. Chapin prods and teases but his wry tale soon turns joyful. Donelian plays sassy vamps with the right hand, and dry staccato chords with the left. The last track, 'Brood Mood,' sashays somberly with Chapin's saxophone, awash with the sizzle of cymbals. Piano and bass lead themselves into lonely terrain, then regroup timidly, awkwardly, improvising nostalgically on each other's lines.
The moment of glory arrives with 'Mexico,' a seductive bolero brimming with dark-eyed passion. Chapin's long notes tremble, tortured by what can only be forbidden love. Donelian's keys weep with wistful longing against Hill's bass solo, like waves receding against the Acapulco coast, shimmering and consistent, but never exactly the same.
Dedicated to Chapin's memory, Quartet Language
preserves a moment in four lives. At once bravely adventurous and breathlessly delicate, it's a relic to be contemplated, and somehow, the enigma of life seems a little bit clearer.
This review originally appeared in AllAboutJazz-New York