Jen Chapin jazzes up her sound and vision

Jen Chapin

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 8, 2003) – Jen Chapin returned to Club Helsinki on Saturday night with her band for the first time since last August. Since that time, Chapin has been working feverishly on a whole new batch of songs, she and her band have been gigging regularly in and around New York, and they have been laying down tracks for her next album, “Linger,” which promises to be a more than worthy follow-up to “Open Wide,” her excellent acoustic duet album with acoustic bassist/husband Stephan Crump.

In two sets on Saturday, the multi-talented Chapin bounded across styles as disparate as bebop, neo-soul, bohemian folk, calypso, avant-jazz, fusion and Steely Dan-like jazz-rock. What tied it all together – and it was all of one, very smart piece – were Chapin’s tightly focused delivery, her versatile, expressive vocals, her sharply-defined poetry and her band’s sensitive accompaniment.

She was also a great performer, having grown by leaps and bounds since last summer in her command of the stage and of her ensemble and in her ability to connect with the audience. She boasted enough confidence to introduce a song merely by saying, “This is a song about the government,” and let her lyrics do the talking. (If only Michelle Shocked, with years more experience and commercial success behind her, had believed as much in her songs and her audience’s intelligence, her show last week at Helsinki would have been so much the better).

Chapin’s political-minded numbers, like “Passive People” – in which she sings, “We let the outrage melt away/It seems life is so much easier that way” -- were pointed but never preachy. She had the wit to incorporate the term “trickle down” into the song’s lyric, thus making an incisive critique of political economy out of a breezy calypso tune.

Other songs, like “Manchild,” “City” and “NYC,” were well-detailed character sketches built on unusual jazz chords and modulations – where Stevie Wonder meets bebop. Chapin’s distinctive voice, which boasts a natural rasp, is dusky and sensual at the bottom and opens up large – but never too large -- up top. Her phrasing is uncannily swinging, and she brings the jazz singer’s art to her poetry. Her lines are fleet and felicitous and always surprising, and she glided effortlessly in and out of wordless vocals, or scat singing, in several numbers.

Chapin threw herself into her songs, fully inhabiting the material and telling her stories with intensity and flair, yet she was never showy or overly dramatic. Bassist Crump, aided by drummer Patrick Carmichael, propelled the songs with a fluid pulse, while keyboardist Peter Rende and guitarist Jamie Fox colored the arrangements with delicate brushstrokes, so that “Linger” and “Hurry Up Sky,” two of the best numbers of the evening, were dreamily atmospheric.

The fact that Chapin was at her most gripping when she came out at the beginning of her second set backed only by Crump for several numbers was a tribute to her dynamic control and melodic inventiveness. Her voice soared and danced appropriately on a number “about getting dumped,” she said, a free-metered piece about the long, late-night walk home rendered with the jazzy intensity of Cassandra Wilson. It made a listener ponder whether Chapin should just throw her chips in with the pure jazz crowd. But then she’d be sacrificing her terrific, Erykah Badu-like neo-soul stylings, as well as her more folk-jazz oriented, Norah Jones side.

In the end, it was terrific to be entertained in all those ways, embodied as one in Chapin’s distinctive voice, beauty, sensibility and personality.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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