“Thomas Chapin: Night Bird Song—the incandescent life of a jazz great”
Film review by John Pietaro
Have you had the chance to see this moving, enticing film on Thomas Chapin (1957-1998), the brilliantly artful saxophonist and flutist? It was shown in various locations in Manhattan, from City Winery to Lincoln Center, and also in festivals around the nation and globe, but somehow got passed my watchful eye. Until now. Just caught a screening in Flushing, Queens last night, and it was well worth the trip from my Brooklyn home base. Sadly, Chapin’s all too brief career was also easy to miss, though he was a busy player on the mainstream scene and also hailed a champion downtown, quickly moving to the front of the Knitting Factory stage during the later ‘80s and ‘90s. As per the onscreen testimony of Michael Dorf, Knitting Factory founder, Chapin was the first artist to be signed to the now sought-after Knitting Factory record label and the main attraction of the overseas tours he produced under that banner.
Here was an alto player of constant invention and a wonderfully listenable tone (I couldn’t help but notice some similarity to that of David Sanborn) who thrived in settings from Lionel Hampton’s big band, of which he was musical director, to the incendiary realm of Machine Gun. Throughout the screening, I kept wondering how I could have not caught on to this deeply talented musician back then, even as I haunted the downtown venues and played at that original Knitting Factory location on Houston Street.
Award winning filmmaker Stephanie J. Castillo was actually Chapin’s sister-in-law, so had access to not only family members for interview segments, but close friends and musical allies with the saxophonist, offering viewers a much fuller understanding of the man than could have otherwise been possible. I’m glad she did. The documentary is a thorough examination of every facet of Chapin’s development, success and challenges. Though the story ends with the terribly young death of the protagonist, his final passing from a vicious strain of leukemia occurred only after achieving his wish to perform onstage one final time. The footage of that event, and surrounding interviews, carries every viewer into the moment and the effect, simultaneously a lamentation and celebration, is stirring.
“Thomas Chapin: Night Bird Song” is not to be missed, especially if you were downtown during the heyday of East Village creativity. Or just wish you were. It hits screens in DC and Charlottesville later this month. On May 6 the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music hosts a concert of Chapin compositions performed by many of the musicians who worked with him over the years. See the above website for details.