Thursday Jul 18

The Rhythm and Cool of Chet Baker

Chet Baker

Contradictions and conflicting reactions dogged trumpeter Chet Baker throughout his career. An undervalued and overpublicized jazz musician, he was caught between critics who sniffed at his apparent technical limitations and fans who reacted more to his mystique than to his music.

Chet Baker collage courtesy of Eric Scheuble

In The Making of Jazz, author James Lincoln Collier all but dismisses Baker completely. "He played within one of the smallest physical and emotional compasses in jazz," Collier said, "rarely raising his voice or venturing out of the middle register. His playing is passive, sometimes to the point of self-pity." But that type of opinion didn't stop critics from nominating Baker in Downbeat magazine’s annual poll or voting him into its Hall of Fame in 1989.

Pianist Herbie Hancock backs up those tributes. "Chet was considered a viable threat to the Miles Davis throne," he wrote in the notes to Let's Get Lost. "Even though he played in that cool, California style, with a lightly swinging rhythm, he was one of a handful of the West Coast jazz musicians who played with a subtle strength that was on a par with the great power emanating from the East Coast. The notes he chose had an incredible depth."

Said John Graas, the French horn player who played with Baker in Gerry Mulligan's tentette and participated in Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions, "I think we were all secretly happy at the success of Chet Baker, a guy who uses about one octave in a dynamic range of ppp to mf" in contrast to "the sensationalism of a Pete Candoli or Maynard Ferguson."

There are even stories of Charlie Parker choosing Baker over any other California trumpeter and then returning to New York with a warning to those in the Big Apple that there was "a little white cat on the West Coast who's going to eat you up."

Undoubtedly, Baker's music overflowed with nuance, yet he felt obliged to defend his technical approach. The Hip (co-authored by Roy Carr, Brian Case, and Fred Dellar) quotes Baker as saying, "You know, it seems the people are only impressed by three things--either you play fast, or you play high, or be the sound of the instrument itself. It's not what notes you play." Although Baker's notes seldom came fiercely or fast, when he hit his personal stride, each one was precisely defined in pitch, time, and timbre. Each carried an inevitable melodic, rhythmic, and emotional impact.

Baker recorded prolifically, and a broad selection of his work is available on CD. This is not a recent development calculated to capitalize on his biographical movie--Let’s Get Lost--in which he starred, or his mysterious death in May 1988. Instead it reflects the long-standing esteem for Baker in Europe, the source of much early CD production. He toured there in the early 1950s with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and later on his own.

It was during that second European sojourn that Baker recorded a series of sessions for the Barclay label in France. PolyGram has released the complete recordings of those sessions on four Emarcy CDs under the general rubric Chet in Paris, with subtitles "Featuring Dick Twardzik," "Everything Happens to Me," "Cheryl," and "Alternate Takes."

Chet in Paris documents Baker at his best, includes the bulk of the recorded work of pianist Twardzik, shows the healthy state of jazz in western Europe in the mid-'50s, and demonstrates once again how one strong talent can charge up a studio full of good but unremarkable players.

On volume one Baker and his quartet perform nine tunes with Twardzik, all but one composed by Bob Zeiff. In the liner notes, Alain Tercinel kindly refers to the Zeiff compositions as "unorthodox." I’d call them affected and self-conscious. It's no wonder that the one Twardzik composition of the group, "The Girl from Greenland," is generally singled out as the place to hear the pianist at his best.

Twardzik, 24, died of a drug overdose a week after the last of these tracks were recorded. Three days later, Baker was back in the studio with a new quartet (the studio had already been booked). The second volume contains these tunes, mostly standards ("Summertime," "Tenderly," and "Autumn in New York"), which provided easily accessible common ground for the newly acquainted musicians.

Baker decided to remain in Europe and made Paris his base of operations. The following month he recorded five more quartet performances, which also are on the second volume. This date produced the only vocal of the set, a touching rendition of Matt Dennis and Tom Adair’s "Everything Happens to Me" (unaccountably attributed to Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael). These post-Twardzik quartet performances disclose Baker at his most romantic and most vulnerable. They demand to be heard with the lights low, preferably with a warm companion.

Volume three, "Cheryl," features quintet performances and is the most overtly jazzy. By this time, Baker had expanded to a quintet with either Bobby Jasper or Jean-Louis Chautemps playing tenor sax. Jasper was a kindred spirit. His playing here evokes such tenor stalwarts as Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, with a good dose of Hank Mobley thrown in. Chautemps fills out the ensembles nicely, but doesn't contribute much in terms of solos.

The quintet pieces tend away from standards. They include the Parker blues title track, Al Cohn’s "Tasty Puddin'," Phil Urso's hip "Chekeetah" and "Exitus," and Baker's "Anticipated Blues," "Speak Low," "How About You," and "Dear Old Stockholm." For those who tuned into jazz during that era, these  quintet performances can give a sensation of turning back the clock.

The small band performances occurred at various times throughout Baker's European tenure. Seven-piece ensembles play arrangements that are typical of the period, very smooth and lightly swinging. There are a few on every disc except volume two. Volume four consists of alternate takes from all but the Twardzik sessions. It's either a nice introductory sampler or interesting supplement to the set, depending on how you use it. The sound quality on these reissues varies somewhat from session to session. Certainly the quintet sets enjoy the best sonics, while the Twardzik sessions are the weakest from the audio aspect.

Baker's inspiration was critical to the performances of the European musicians that accompanied him on these dates. How critical can be heard by comparing these recordings to Jasper's "Memory of Dick," which was recorded the day after the Baker/Jasper set. The personnel is the same except for quitarist Sacha Distel, who occupies Baker’s spot in the lineup. The performances are competent but pedestrian, and sparks are nowhere to be heard. To be fair to the musicians, it's possible that the dull and muddy sonics contribute to the impression of lifelessness.

Baker returned to the U.S. in 1956 and toured as part of the Birdland All-Stars the following year. In 1958, Orrin Keepnews invited Baker to record a set of quartet and quintet performances with hard-swinging East Coast musicians including the potent rhythm team of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, The result was the superb Chet Baker in New York on Riverside.

Not only does this session serve up plenty of relaxed, swinging Baker, but it contains excellent work by tenor sax player Johnny Griffin and a rare opportunity to hear the seminal bop pianist Al Haig playing beautifully at a time when he was shamefully under-recorded. As a bonus, the Benny Golson compositions "Fair Weather" and "Blue Thoughts" were arranged by Golson for the quintet. Other highlights include quartet performances of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "When Lights are Low."

The sound on New York leaves something to be desired. The tonal quality is on the dull side and the dynamics are fairly constricted. I hear an odd shift of trumpet balance and position during "Soft Winds," a track that originally was released on a compilation LP but has been restored to its rightful place for the CD reissue. In general, Riverside's engineers of that time had difficulty making the switch from mono to stereo.

Transitions in the 60's were rough on Baker too. He spent time in jails in Germany and Great Britain for drug use. Then, toward the end of the decade, Baker was beaten up in San Francisco. The attack took away his teeth--no small loss to a trumpet player--and his interest in performing publicly.

Baker came back in the '70s and was reunited with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1974. CTI recorded the proceedings and issued them on two LPs. The CD reissue, Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker, Carnegie Hall Concert, gathers the music onto one 70-minute disc. Mulligan and Baker play together only on updates of three old classics: "Line for Lyons," "Bernie's Tune," and "My Funny Valentine." Joining the two are bassist Ron Carter, drummer Harvey Mason, Dave Samuels on vibes and percussion, John Scofield on guitar, and Bob James at electric and acoustic pianos.

You can hear the effect of the years on Baker's conception most clearly on the performance of "Valentine." The lyricism is still there, but there's a dark, brooding quality too. Baker's tone is heavier and less precisely controlled. He sits out for three extended performances of newer Mulligan compositions but gets in one quintet number, "There Will Never Be Another You," with trombonist Ed Byrne and the basic rhythm team. On it he vocalized with a weak quaver before coming back for a solid trumpet solo. The sound quality is good mid-70s stereo.

A few years later, Baker did some work for A&M Records. Much of it consisted of anonymous tootling against overarranged backgrounds, but a batch of straight ahead small group performances recently were discovered and released as The Best Thing for You. As with the Riverside date, Baker is backed by a high voltage rhythm section (Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) and relishes every minute of it. Paul Desmond plays alto on three of the selections, his last recorded performances.

Baker contributes three exquisite vocals ("Oh, You Crazy Moon," "How Deep Is the Ocean," and "If You Could See Me Now"). His voice is much stronger and fresher than it was three years earlier at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, there weren't enough of these simple swinging performances in the vaults to fill a CD, so A&M added an alternate take of "El Morro," a Don Sebesky composition full of ersatz Spanish vamps and rhythmic dislocations played by studio musicians. Things like that were trendy in the '70s.

Baker's last recordings are collected on Chet Baker Sings and Plays from the Film Let's Get Lost (1987). His voice--or perhaps his dental work--had deteriorated so badly that the words he intones are often unintelligible and he settles for either the original melodic line or whatever random variation may happen to present itself. His trumpeting actually held up better than his voice, but we don't hear much of it. I imagine that each note was a strain, but each turned into a gem. Less than a year later, Baker was found dead outside his hotel window in Amsterdam.

Perhaps such sad valedictory recordings are necessary. They give us a look at the gritty core of an artist's work with all the beauty and light stripped away. I just fear that this recording will be the first--and last--contact with Chet Baker for many people. His memory and his music deserve better.