Music From the Far Center: Open Wide for Jen Chapin and Stephan Crump
People who complain about the music scene of today, and those who seek
to justify their lack of original ideas, have a mantra: “Hey, it’s all
been done before, anyway.” While I don’t necessarily buy that, there’s
nothing wrong with breaking no new ground. That’s considered noble in
the worlds of Jazz and Folk/Anti-folk.
The seminal 1971 recording of
“Love in the Middle of the Air” by vocalist Jeanne Lee and stellar
bassist Reggie Workman set the standard for bass and vocal duets, which
in itself breaks down music to its twin essentials - bass line and
melody line. With a driving, walking, and dancing bass line, Lee takes
a simple phrase through a myriad of musical permutations, turning the
voice into Eric Dolphy’s sax one second, then Louis Armstrong’s growl
the next: “Catch me/ I love you/ I trust you.” An idea that is at once
as simple as they come, and as avant as anything the Knitting Factory
has to offer, this type of duet is rare. And I can see why - when
there’s just the voice out there without a band and fluffy spectacle,
the singer is on her own. You know what that can mean.
Luckily for us, Jen Chapin and Stephan Crump step into the arena with
the CD “Open Wide.” This excellent CD combines the best of both Jazz and
Folk to create something unique. Ms. Chapin’s vocals combine Jazz’s
melodic and rhythmic playfulness, which is at once complex and
straightforward, with Folk music’s storytelling and social conscience.
Mr. Crump’s bass pops, bops, vamps and glides along behind Ms. Chapin’s
voice. On nearly every song he swings, grooves and gets funky in a
well-blended amalgamation of bassness that is always there, but
tastefully so - never does he step on her toes.
The first cut, “Hurry Up Sky” sets the table, leading off with a hit.
The opening sounds - softly tinkling chimes that rise out of several
seconds of silence, like wisps of clouds - gets the listener leaning
forward in her chair. The bass line builds out of seemingly random
plucks on the strings, like someone warming up. The line coalesces into
a sparse vamp as the voice comes out of this open sky with some
conversational lines: “Once we had laughed about a discount store and a
diamond ring . . . back when my window held a shelter of sky/ and we
would watch the planes go by.” Then, just like that, they slide into the
gentle and strident chorus. “Hurry up time, speed us way . . . to the
day when the sky doesn’t rain.” This song musically depicts regret and
the desire of a lover to get back that love magic that often wilts over
time. Trust me. I know.
Other songs capture cool slice of life moments,
but with the sophistication of Jazz. The evocative cut ”NYC” finds Ms.
Chapin extolling the city and capturing that feeling you get when you
leave NYC in a huff and are shocked at the vanilla gray of other towns
and cities. Her breathy voice has the plaintive edge of a folk singer’s
sincerity with the sassy edge and attitude of The City. Crump gets
wicked on the bass, playing a line that’s cool, funky, and bops along
with that relentless energy of everyday life here. Every time I play
this song that bass line makes me smile; it’s what walking down the
street in downtown Brooklyn feels like.
There was a time when Jazz, like Folk has been since Woody Guthrie’s
day, was political, with songs of protest and commentary. Charles
Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” (dissing Rockefeller and warmongering
corporations), Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”(the lynching of blacks
as allegory) and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi, Goddamn,” come to mind.
Now, most of Jazz’s well-known artists are drunk with acceptance by the
mainstream and are politically conservative. Ms. Chapin happily brings
this flavor back into the mix. Not as bombastic and allegorical as the
above artists, her song “Passive People” is cut from the cloth of a
Folk protest song. With a simple melody she gently, beautifully and
directly states her case: “Passive People” The bass plays a dark tango
rhythm as she sings: “The riches climb dime by dime . . . so the dollars
aren’t so evenly sprayed around . . . I’m sure they’ll trickle down . .
. we are passive people at the end of the day we let our outrage melt
away it seems easier that way.” Look around at what’s happening as
people line up behind our asinine leaders and tell me, is she wrong?
The best cut on the disk, “Gold,” works on so many levels: the voice is
sweet and soulful, the bass excellent, and lyrics that are neither dense
nor simplistic - poetic in a word. The song starts with a bass intro
of Mr. Crump’s fleshy fingers hitting the strings, then plucking them
in a modulating, gutbucket, vamp (the recording of the bass is
excellent; you can hear the resonating wood of the instrument) that is a
mini homage to the great Charlie Haden. The song recalls the lost art of
the instructional song, found in Folk and ‘60s Soul music, wherein the
singer imparts some sort of life lesson. But in a much more funky,
dope-ass way than Oprah’s “Remember Your Spirit” segment. “An old woman
said to me . . . ‘see what I got? . . . I got gold and it shines in dark
places.’ . . . and I try to put all my life in one day / try to look for
that gold in everything I do.” Like the sage old rocker once said, “it’s
the singer not the song.” These guys are great because the look for that
gold, and like tango dancers, they never step on toes.
Get this disk
from Purple Chair Music, at their website. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check their websites, www.jenchapin.com, and www.stephancrump.com.
both have stuff going on separately and together. Give ‘em some love.
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