Giving Voice to Jazz

By Norman Boucher / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Open Wide Jen Chapin ’93, vocals, and Stephan Crump, bass (Purple Chair Music, $16); Making Time Elliot Steger ’78, acoustic piano; Josh Davis, acoustic bass; and Jon Hazilla, drums (Disc Makers, $12; available at

I’ve often wondered why Ivy League schools have produced so few of today’s successful jazz artists. The two who come immediately to mind are pianist Uri Caine, who graduated from Penn, and saxophonist and Harvard alumnus Joshua Redman, players who bring to their music a probing intelligence that seeks to expand the genre while simultaneously embracing it.

After all, jazz has always been an innovative and restless music, examining the world around it by shamelessly absorbing influences and combining them into something that both reinforces and redirects musical tradition. To me, at least, that doesn’t sound all that different from the critical thinking that schools like Brown seek to encourage.

One recent graduate who is taking on the challenge is vocalist Jen Chapin ’93. Her CD Open Wide is both an intriguing musical debut and a gentle questioning of what jazz is anyway. Chapin is nothing if not courageous. On the CD she sings her own original compositions accompanied only by the fluid, understated riffing of bassist Stephan Crump.

Some reviews of Open Wide have compared her sound to Joni Mitchell’s or Rickie Lee Jones’s, but neither comparison seems especially apt. Chapin’s music blends melodies marked by a kind of coffeehouse simplicity with vivid, musing lyrics that are variously introspective and assertive. Like Cassandra Wilson, Bill Frisell, and more recently, Norah Jones, she’s working the boundary of folk music and jazz, although she also spices her tunes with a pinch of blues for good measure.

As a lyricist, Chapin (who is the daughter of the late folk-rock icon Harry Chapin) presents a more self-critical and nuanced view of the world than Jones does. Some of Chapin’s songs are addressed to a mysterious “you,” toward whom she vacillates between longing and anger. “For now I’ll say / I’d like to wash your colors down / Please pour them on me ’til I drown,” she sings in “Portrait,” while in “Way” she asserts, “A day when I’d settle for your cheap candy / That day is at its end.”

Other tunes are preachier. In “Gold,” she sings, “And I try to put all my life in one day / Try to look for that gold in everything I do.” More successful is “Passive People” with its refrain: “We are passive people at the end of the day / We let the outrage melt away / It seems that life is so much easier that way / We are passive people / There’s a lot that we can take / Our hearts will dry up before they break.”

Under whatever genre you file Open Wide, keep it handy and play it often.

ELLIOT STEGER ’78, a physician by day and a jazz pianist by night, has suffered the unfortunate fate of being filed under New Age or smooth jazz. In Making Time, Steger joins Berklee College of Music teachers Josh Davis, on bass, and Jon Hazilla, on drums, to play ten original compositions that reflect the precision of Steger’s longtime training as a classical pianist. Although his publicity material mentions Bill Evans, Steger’s playing is more reminiscent of someone like Bill Charlap. Making Time is Steger’s third CD, and his first with other musicians. “Journey,” a song from Transition, his second CD, was recently nominated for a Just Plain Folks Music Award in the solo instrumental song category. Among his fellow nominees is Ahmad Jamal—first-rate company for a pianist with a demanding day job.

Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.
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