New jazz song by Jen Chapin [an error occurred while processing this directive]
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 23, 2002) – Jazz singing, especially by women, seems to be making a comeback these days. At the top of the heap is Diana Krall, who headlines next weekend’s jazz festival at Tanglewood. But Krall is mostly about nostalgia, a throwback to Peggy Lee and Nat “King” Cole. More modern and adventurous singers of recent vintage include Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones, who don’t close their eyes to the fact that popular music has been evolving in various directions since 1955 and that some of these innovations are worth incorporating into their styles and repertoires.

(Actually, the same dichotomy is being played out in instrumental jazz, with Wynton Marsalis heading up the neo-traditional school for which jazz history ends in the mid-‘50s, versus downtown artists like Steve Bernstein and Josh Roseman – the latter performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday night – for whom the music of the Rolling Stones and Nirvana serves as the contemporary version of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.)

In her 90-minute set at Club Helsinki on Thursday night, Jen Chapin came down decidedly on the side of the modernists. In Chapin’s case, she grafts a singer-songwriter’s sensibility to her natural approach as a jazz vocalist and bandleader. This means she writes and performs all her own material, much of it personal and even confessional, if somewhat abstract. But she delivers it in the context of jazz, using her sophisticated vocal melodicism to paint texture and emotion with her voice, as just another member, if a key one, in the ensemble.

In her case, it helps that she has a distinctive voice – a husky but powerful instrument with the hint of a bluesy rasp, yet one she wields with commanding control – and a sensitive ensemble of musicians who by sheer force of numbers – there were five of them -- could have easily overwhelmed her.

Not that they did not threaten to at times, and about two-thirds of the way through she dismissed most of them to play a few, welcome duet numbers with bassist/husband Stephan Crump. “Open Wide” and “Don’t Miss You” – both from “Open Wide” (Purple Chair), her terrific duet recording with Crump – were more than just the most effective numbers of the evening, startling in their intimacy and openness. Freed from her band, which included Chris Cheek on saxophone, Jamie Fox on guitar, Pete Rende on keyboards, and Dan Rieser on drums, Chapin came fully alive, even physically transforming herself into a loose-limbed diva, gesturing dramatically and playfully and just letting it all hang out in a more relaxed way than she had up until that point.

When her band returned for the home stretch, Chapin maintained that state of grace to the end, through “Passive People,” an indictment of apathy (“our hearts will dry up before they break”) in the form of Drifter’s style, Latin/doo-wop, and through a moody jazz tune “about love in New York City with all its quirks,” featuring luscious, bluesy fills by Cheek on tenor sax and sympathetic work by the band as a whole.

At moments Chapin’s overall approach recalled the more jazzy pop-folk singers like Rickie Lee Jones and Edie Brickell and the more folky jazz singers like Wilson and Jones. Her husky, elastic voice even had hints of Betty Carter. But most striking, in the end, was the manner in which Chapin has carved out a unique style of modern jazz song, a song style clearly raised on rock, folk and blues of the past 30 or 40 years, but a style that is undeniably part of the jazz continuum.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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