Jen Chapin fights tug of war with her bed and your brain

Jen Chapin performing at Club Helsinki on Saturday, May 29, 2004 (photo: Seth Rogovoy)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass, May 30, 2004) – On several of the songs she performed with her band in her terrific, 75-minute set at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, Jen Chapin sang about a figurative tug of war with her bed. In “Numbers,” she was torn between the desire to linger in bed next to her lover and the call of commerce, in the form of a to-do list of phone calls to return, letters to write and bills to pay. And in “Regular Life,” her bed itself was a character, “inclined to ask me back to stay,” taunting her that “the streets won’t mind if they don’t feel [her] heavy feet today.”

This tension between the private and public sphere, between the intimate and the engaged, is a thread that runs through most of Chapin’s original compositions – sophisticated pop songs that draw equally on jazz, rock, blues and world music for color and inspiration. But this tension also fuels her performance, making it an intensely emotional, sensual experience, almost embarrassing in its naked intimacy and vulnerability, in its invitation to listeners to think and to love along with her.

This dynamic played itself out in various ways throughout the evening: in the inner drama of lyrics that variously addressed social apathy, political outrage and liberal guilt; in the modest stories of urbanites being trampled by the alienation of city life; and in the puzzle of a singer finding a way to express these crucial themes in four- and five-minute, jazz-inspired, pop-rock songs that spoke simultaneously to the head, the heart and the groin.

But as nakedly sexual and as emotionally honest as Chapin was, there was nothing lascivious or exhibitionistic about her performance at all. Rather, hers was an expression of refinement, one that used the tools of rock and the blues – her dynamic, at times raw and raspy vocals – and jazz – her vocal color and tone patterned along the sound of a saxophone, and her rhythmic phrasing full of syncopated pops and unexpected turns – to conjure up a wholly new and idiosyncratic style of mature pop for now people.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Chapin is a remarkable presence on stage, her large, expressive eyes vying with her long, fluid arms and hand gestures for representing visually the shape and sounds of the music like some latter-day Betty Carter. And her musicians functioned like additional limbs on the body of her music, with Stephan Crump’s bass providing the thumping heartbeat, Adrian Harpham’s drums propelling the forward-moving steps, and guitarist Jamie Fox and keyboardist Peter Rende caressing Chapin’s vocals with a sinuous latticework of hugs and kisses from their instruments.

Even after seeing her three times at Club Helsinki in as many years, it’s impossible to pin down where Chapin is coming from. Is she a rock singer with a soul voice singing jazz songs? A jazz singer with a rock voice singing soul songs? Or a soul singer with a jazz voice singing rock songs? The answer, I think, is both none and all of the above. Chapin is paving her own way, building on a tradition that connects Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” both musically and lyrically, but with a sound and personality which, as with both those legendary performers, is entirely and uniquely her own. And potentially as rich and creative as either.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 31, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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