Playing Pop in the Jazz/Soul Shadow

by Will Layman

21 May 2007

Layman shares Thai food with the band, and discusses the wonderfully uncategorizable music of The Jen Chapin Trio.
All photos from 

A Defining Moment on the Road
The Jen Chapin Trio spent the spring of 2007 touring a good part of the Eastern and Midwestern US, driving the highways in a minivan packed with Stephan Crump’s acoustic bass, Jamie Fox’s Gibson guitar, and Jen Chapin’s son (with her husband Crump).  Maceo—a spunky toddler who lives in Brooklyn with his folks—added to the jumble of life on the road, as the group moved from town-to-town playing one-nighters as the musical economy requires; clubs, music halls, coffeehouses, even living rooms.  At each stop they had to find a friend or new acquaintance who would kindly play with the smiling (or crying) boy while they do what they love and do best: make a hard-to-characterize sound that draws in listeners with its slippery rhythm, painterly lyrics, and blues urge.

Before a “house concert” in Washington, DC, the band (and the boy) were eating Thai food and talking about the problem of what to call their music.

“It is a problem,” Crump said.  “Some people want to call it folk music, but it isn’t really folk music at all.”  And that is certainly correct.  Crump and his guitar partner, Fox, are straight-up jazz musicians whose inventiveness, improvisation, and polyrhythmic leanings make the trio a far cry from the elegant simplicity of “folk music”.

“But this isn’t jazz either,” noted Fox.  Though Fox’s recent solo record, When I Get Home, is a lovely incarnation of modern jazz guitar (featuring Crump, Michael Sarin’s drums, and Kenny Werner’s piano, among other jazz musicians), his playing with Jen Chapin is closer to smart pop-rock.  You could imagine him playing a gig with Steely Dan or Wilco before you’d imagine him gigging with Joan Baez.

Jen Chapin, who likes spicy noodles and who sings and writes most of the trio’s material, is certainly no help on this matter of definition and labeling.  First, she is the daughter of the famous singer-songwriter Harry Chapin (“Cat’s in the Cradle”)—a man whose folk-rock career never quite defined him: he was also a documentary filmmaker and a political activist.  Second, Chapin’s voice is a mixture of blues elasticity, raspy urgency, and melodic candor.  That is, she sings rather like a jazz musician without actually singing jazz.

“It shouldn’t matter what label you put on your music, of course,” Jen notes.  “But if you’re not well known, people want to know what kind of music you make.”

Complicating matters further, the tunes that Chapin writes (and that Crump and Fox deftly sketch behind her) are often quietly funky and chock-a-block with hip licks and syncopated vamps.  Obviously, Crump and Chapin love James Brown (Maceo Parker was Brown’s blues-drenched alto player) even as they tour in a drum-less trio.  The group’s music, even the unbearably lovely ballad “Let It Show” from their latest record, Ready, is a kind of sly soul music.  It is folk-funk.  And on that particular Friday night in Washington, DC, it was being fueled by red curry chicken and a 19-month-old’s smile, and the audience—oblivious to matters of labeling—was mesmerized.

Invidious Comparison
When you are talking about genre-defying female singers who have a jazz tinge, it seems like you should at least name-check Norah Jones.  She’s sold millions, of course, but that’s not all of it.  She seemed to exemplify—or maybe take ideal advantage of—a cultural moment.  With iPods and satellite radio suddenly making eclecticism more than a rarity, Jones was the artist who found a way to become the Six Million Dollar diva—solder together jazz, country, contemporary folk, and a whiskey-sweet voice, and—VOILA!

Jen Chapin arguably presents similar potential.  Crossing up genres and boasting a pliable, superior voice, Chapin could just as easily seem like Starbucks material.  In fact, Jen’s first complete record, Linger, was reviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2004.  A kinda-Norah beginning, right?  And the review was fantastic—Thom Terrell called the album “brilliant” and dubbed Jen “an original” making “soulfully poetic urban folk music”.  The album, he enthused, contained three “great crazy sexy cool love songs”.

But the lesson is probably this: lightening doesn’t often strike twice in the same spot, or in the case, in the same way.  Jones debuted in early 2002 (and, yup, got great reviews on NPR), and by 2004 too many folks had about had it with her.

But Jen Chapin isn’t all that Norah-esque, really.  Both are eclectic cocktails, but the ingredients mix very differently; Norah is cool while Jen is hot, Norah studied while Jen bursts with the moment.

There are other genre-defying artists who seem more on the mark, and like Chapin, these musicians suggest that it may take longer for an audience to gather.  Chapin herself mentions the hip, downtown chanteuse of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, Rickie Lee Jones.  “When people ask what we sound like, I’ll mention Rickie Lee, but I still don’t think that’s quite right.”  Jones has an eccentric, mannered voice, and her music is elaborately arranged.  Chapin’s records are more intimate.  Though Linger and 2006’s Ready go beyond the trio’s spare ease, the elaborations remain somewhat gentle; a string quartet, an arrangement of clarinets, a single Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Thom Terrell’s “urban folk” moniker fits Rickie Lee Jones, but he mentioned it to draw comparison to Laura Nyro.  Nyro, with her bluesy voice and jazzy leanings, seems closer to Chapin in every way but chronology—a great songwriter and a talented storyteller, a performer who seemed drenched in jazz and soul manners but without the least pretense to performing “jazz”.  But even this, better, comparison is ultimately beside the point.  Using a never-really-that-famous-and-35-years-past touchstone hardly helps people to know why they should come to your show.

The Music Itself
Their meal finished and Maceo occupied with a sitter, The Jen Chapin Trio was ready to perform.  The set-up was typically spare: Fox used a simple Fender amp, but Crump was going completely naked.  Most stand-up bass players today use a small attached microphone, however Crump was going to fill the room using only fingers, string, and wood. Even more surprisingly, Chapin would work without a microphone, simply leaning back and letting her voice fly on the powerful songs and edging forward toward the audience of quiet songs, letting her whispers float to the back of the room.

The band sounded jaunty and cool on “Little Hours”, the syncopated lead figure playing tag with Jen’s vocal.  Some songs were political—a lament about apathy, for example—and several were just plain hot:  “I’m ready for you to rock me ‘til the dawn then start again”.  Though the band was playing with the evening setting over a distantly visible Washington Monument, much of the music was drenched in New York City.  “This morning I woke up / Felt like a truck outside was driving over my head / But, hey, if I’m gonna have street traffic in my bed / I’d rather it be the real thing”, Jen sang in a conversational series of hip blues stutters, all while Crump played a funk groove behind her.  Though the audience was seated, their asses were moving in their folding chairs.

It was no surprise, then, when the trio chose to throw out covers that were tensile-tough and grooving.  Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” was angry and blues-drenched at the same time, while Jen’s take on Van Morrison seemed to channel Jackie Wilson.  When she turned to covering Bruce Springsteen’s iconic, political “Born in the USA”, Chapin seemed truly to be a kind of jazz singer—forsaking the written melody for a series of freely interpreted blues figures over Crump’s Mingus-like bass muscle.  Truly, Chapin’s version let the audience hear the words in a fresh way, as a public mourning for the fate of an unpowerful man.  Blues if ever there was blues.
The trio could be tender, too, but hardly folky.  “Let It Show”, the most memorable song on Ready, is a mother’s meditation on her baby son’s future, a piece of heartfelt advice.  Chapin began it with a self-mocking joke—“Here’s another pretty song in C Major”—but then she faced the audience alone with her acoustic guitar, like a million other Joni-wannabes before her.  The gentle guitar figure, however, masks a funk groove.  When Crump joins, playing a stuttering root note on the one, the tender song gets an unmistakable groove on.  And, ironically, in somehow defying the folksinger stereotype, Chapin is that much more like Joni Mitchell (the mature Joni), incorporating widely defined elements of the rock tradition, using jazz musicians as her mainstays, finding ways to use her voice just a bit like a saxophone.  If she sounds like a caressing Stan Getz on “Let It Show”, then it’s equally true that she sounds like Coltrane on “Born in the USA” and like Cannonball Adderley on “Ready”.  Not bad for a mere “folk” singer.

On her website, Chapin writes about her days studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was deeply enmeshed in funk music.  “Around ‘94-‘95, I was . . . invited to join the ‘James Brown Ensemble’—essentially a class that runs like a band, with a drummer, bassist, horns, a couple of guitarists, and me, filling the role of the Godfather of Soul.”  And you can still hear that rhythmic insistence and throaty yell through the blues in all of Chapin’s music a decade on.  Chapin says that funk was “already my main source of musical inspiration”, and that impulse today is evenly integrated into her music.

Which, perhaps, leads to the question: would Chapin be so difficult to categorize—that is, would it be so hard for the music world to see her as the soul singer that she really is—if she weren’t a famous folk-singer’s daughter from the Long Island suburbs?

Two Other Jen Chapins, Kind of
Here’s another comparison.  A fellow New Yorker and fellow daughter of a serious musician (jazz pianist Walter Davis, Jr.) who is just a few years younger than Chapin: Alana Davis.  Davis got radio play with a cover of Ani DeFranco’s “32 Flavors” in 1997, and (like Chapin) she’s been on some late-night TV.  She has a red-wine voice and sings over crackin’ arrangements played by the best NY session guys.

Alana Davis was seen as a smart neo-soul singer, maybe in part because she has an African-American heritage.  And though her most recent album is on a self-owned label, her first discs were on Elektra.  Customer comments on are likely to notice her roots in R&B or the influence of reggae—associations that seem easier to see in Davis.  Still, Alana Davis—not pop enough to vibe as an Idol-ish commercial property, but also not self-serious (or old) enough to come through as a pure “artist”—seems to have slipped through a musical industry crack.

But here’s another Jen Chapin-esque artist who is currently touring major theaters and whose debut on Capitol records is all over the radio, an artist whose MySpace page discusses her roots as a jazz singer before her move “into more soulful territory”.  Her recent monster hit begins with a mildly strummed acoustic guitar—just like “Let It Show”—and then moves in a gentle funk pulse (just like “Let It Show”).  It would seem that, if Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Like a Star” can be a huge hit, then the world should be ready for the likes of Jen Chapin.

But comparisons are unfair, and fairness is beside the point for audiences and the record industry alike.  Besides, Jen Chapin, Stephan Crump, and Jamie Fox are not complaining.  Not about records sales, not about attendance at their shows, not about anything as far as I could see.  Maceo, not yet two, is oblivious to fairness too; he just wants to dance.

A Critic’s Stab at It
At the midpoint of their shows, Crump sells CDs out of a small case.  One of the treasures that is available is his most recent disc, Rosetta, a set of impressionistic trios between himself, Fox, and Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar.  Rosetta compares favorably with some of finest recordings on the ECM label in this vein, particularly the duets between Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie.  It is beautiful music, but it is also uncompromised by commercial calculation, requiring active listening to unlock its wonderful interplay.

And it dawns on me, as I watch Chapin, Crump, and Fox talk to fans and Sharpie their signatures on CD covers, that the same lack of calculation permeates Chapin’s music, even if it is a form or “pop” music.  Unlike the up-to-the-minute production style on much of Corinne Bailey Rae, Chapin’s recordings—and certainly her live show—are simply the product of a musical life.  Father Harry is in there with some strummy pop-folk storytelling.  The classic rock of the ‘70s has its say.  There is absolutely jazz—strains of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.  Generous dollops of funk and soul are undeniable.  Nyro, Rickie Lee, and Joni, of course.  But most of what you hear is simply a synthesized life in music.  The whole family lives it.

After the show in DC, Fox and Crump pull around the minivan and start loading their equipment while Jen holds Maceo.  We talk a bit about the audience, which was made up of teenagers and older folks, friends and strangers.

“You sounded great,” I say.

“Thanks,” says Jen.  “Though we still don’t really know what to call it.”

Then Crump gets an idea.  “You’re the writer,” he says to me.  “Why don’t you come up with a phrase for it, then send it to us.  We could use the help.”

But Jen’s website indicates gigs a-plenty coming up, even if they are somewhat smaller ones, the kind that jazz musicians are used to.  Plus, a photo of Jen and Maceo appeared in Rolling Stone last year after she appeared at a Springsteen tribute doing her “Born in the USA”.  She seems to be doing just fine without some critic’s label.

Still, for what it’s worth, I’ll throw this out there—quotable copy for a publicist, perhaps.  The Jen Chapin trio is an amazing small group that performs songs that bridge several popular styles—original songs and classic covers—with sly soul.  They play funk-folk as rooted in the feet as it is in the head, story-songs with a groove.

I did my best.  But better is just the music. It’s no single kind of music at all, but just a musical life being lived for you, if you care to listen, while walking the streets of Brooklyn or while driving up and down the highways in a toddler-filled minivan.

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