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Music From the Far Center: Open Wide for Jen Chapin and Stephan Crump
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
2002-10-31
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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. purplechairmusic@erols.com.

Check their websites, www.jenchapin.com, and www.stephancrump.com.

They both have stuff going on separately and together. Give ‘em some love.


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