Vol 2 Special

A Newsletter Dedicated To Chet Baker And His Music

USA Editor
Elizabeth Little

Copy Editor
Bert Whitford
European Editor
Gunthar Skiba

                                        THE  WAGES OF LYRICISM:
                                      CHET BAKER IN RETROSPECT
                                           by  Bob Oakley    Jazz Journal International

                                                 April 1990

 

            If ever a feature article was overtaken by events it was this one:  firstly by its subjectís sudden death and then, more recently, by Bruce Weberís film Letís Get Lost.  Both events have certainly revived interest in a man who for some of his detractors must remain the most overrated trumpeter in the history of jazz, while for that tiny band of Chet Baker devotees he will always be the greatest of them all.  Few would deny that Bruce Weberís film captures the power of Bakerís musical personality as well as his commitment as a jazz singer; but it gives one little opportunity of judging his stature as a jazz trumpet player.  Given that there is no such thing as ďthe greatestĒ anything in any art form, the article that follows is a modest retrospective to aid those who might wish to reach some critical conclusion with regard to Bakerís recorded legacy and an introduction for the newly converted, or unconverted, to a major, but persistently undervalued, talent.  For convenience, I have divided Bakerís career into two broad periods: 1952 to the late sixties (before his first, lengthy retirement from the music business)  I am calling the Early Years; while the years of re-emergence as a full-time professional jazz musician (post 1973) I am calling the Comeback Years.

            Chet Bakerís discography is enormous and so for reasons of space, I have felt obliged to reduce drastically the number of recordings I shall be dealing with.  Firstly I am writing about albums on which Baker plays as leader.  This has meant excluding all his early recordings with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Tentet as well as his two subsequent reunion concerts with Mulligan; also his collaborations with the likes of Art Pepper, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Jim Hall, Paul Bley  and others as well as recordings in which he was the featured artist.  Secondly, I am concerned only with Chet Baker the trumpet player, not the singer.  My third criterion is availability of the recordings under review.  I have restricted myself to albums that, to the best of my knowledge, are commercially available at the time of writing.  This has meant leaving out some of Bakerís most significant achievements; the five quintet albums he made for Prestige in 1965 which featured George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey.  Finally I have excluded CDís as well as albums that have been reviewed in Jazz Journal since December 1988 together with the trickle of recordings that have been issued recently by enterprising record companies out to make a kill on the strength of renewed interest in Baker stimulated by his dramatic death.  As I write, this trickle threatens to turn into a flood.

            Irrespective of his death, now seems a good time for a modest Chet Baker review.  Not only did he record prolifically in the final decade of his career, but also, the last three or four years have seen long-awaited reissues of important recordings from the early years.  In addition to the entire Gerry Mulligan quartet and Tentet oeuvre, Mosaic have

reissued in further boxed sets the entire Chet Baker Quartet Live and Studio recordings made for Pacific Records spanning the years 1553-56.  Incidentally, all these sets are now available on CD.  At the same time, Fresh Sound Records have reissued in a boxed set the three albums Baker made in Paris during that fateful first sojourn in Europe (1955-56).  All three albums are now also available separately.

            The Pacific Studio recordings, with the exception of one or two alternate takes, were all issued in the early fifties. The Live recordings comprise three dates.  Only one, a concert at Ann Arbor campus, was issued at the time (1).  The remaining three discs in the Mosaic Live box comprise part of a Californian concert in Santa Cruz and a fascinating series of tracks recorded when the quartet was in residence at the Tiffany Club, LA, in the summer of 1954.  Readers who are familiar with Bakerís work in his last years but have hitherto heard little of his very early recordings apart from those he made with. Mulligan will, I think be struck in the  first place by the sheer freshness of these live recordings  There are good reasons for this.  Firstly, the rhythm section was excellent.  Secondly, pianist Russ Freeman was, like Baker, someone who didnít sound like anyone else around at the time Ė his playing an intriguing mixture of the spare, the austere, and the slightly abrasive when soloing, and romantic, opulent, chord voicings when backing.  As for the trumpet, Baker buffs have long known that he never really sounded like Miles Davis at all beyond a fondness for the strategic long note and a studied reticence when the occasion demanded.  His tone, attacked like Davisís for being untrumpetlike, was in fact nothing like Davisís. His playing in the halcyon days of the original quartet with Russ Freeman reveal him as looking back as well as forward, but rarely at Miles.  His fluency and constant originality of ideas, especially when improvising uptempo, were features of his playing that Gerry Mulligan admired.  I suspect that it was for these qualities that Charlie Parker engaged him; not for any supposed resemblance to Miles Davis.  It is fascinating in this respect; to listen to Baker performing nearly 30 years later alongside the man who replaced him on trumpet in the Mulligan quartet.  The albums, recorded in Cologne in 1981, find Chet and Jon Eardley together (the latter playing flugelhorn on these dates).  My own feeling has always been that Eardley, a sorely ignored and underrated player, has come the nearest to the Chet Baker conception of improvisation on trumpet.  These two absorbing albums offer us by way of a bonus, the quite astounding alto of Bob Mover (27, 28).

 

            The freshness of invention up-tempo is evidence on all the Mosaic reissues .  Among the Studio discs, listen to The Lamp Is Low, Batter Up and This Time The Dreamís On Me (5); or Bakerís solos on the alternate takes of Happy Little Sunbeam and Winter Wonderland; or again, the breathtaking swiftness and frenetic yet closely controlled attack of Beaís Flat (6).  The fresh invention and facility of up-tempo are equally in evidence in the Pacific Live recordings made by the quartet as constituted after the original Mulligan Quartet broke up; Carson Smith remained on bass and Bobby Neel took over from Larry Bunker on drums when the new Baker band went on the road up and down the West Coast in the following year of 1954.  Listen to My Little Suede Shoes (2) Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart and Dandy Line (3) Ė all these among the Tiffany Club tracks.

            When his turn came to record for the first time in Europe in the autumn of 1955, Baker made three studio albums in  Paris for Barclay, now available in the Fresh Sounds boxed set.  The album made by the quartet he brought with him from the States is remarkable for two obvious reasons that have little to do with the leader;  the extraordinary piano-playing and outsized musical personality of Richard Twardzick, shortly to die of an overdose; and the nine, singular compositions of Bob Zieff (8).  From the point of view of anyone exclusively interested in Bakerís level of performance as a jazz improviser, the pick of the three Paris albums is the one composed of tracks recorded only days after Twardzickís death,  with Gerard Gustin on the piano stool, Jimmy Bond, the bassist Baker had brought with him to Europe, and Bert Dahlander taking over on drums after Peter Littman had gone home to the States (9).  Here we have an intelligent, understated Summertime and an Iíll Remember April with plenty of ideas in which the old Parker war-horse comes up as fresh as a daisy.  The third album in the Fresh Sounds box features Chet with a variety of instrumental combinations including on some tracks, trombone and three saxes as well as more quartet playing and two quintet tracks featuring Bobby Jaspar on tenor (10).  There is a certain lack of inspiration here and there but also eloquent solos by Baker and Jaspar on Chekeetah and good work by the leader on Dinah and Tasty Pudding.

            Bakerís overlong and distinctly uninspired Billieís Bounce at the Santa Cruz concert where it is left to Russ Freeman to provide the ideas (4), will have disappointed those who remember Beaís Flat (6).  Chet makes ample amends in Paris with a resourceful, stretched-out solo on Exitus, proving he really could play the blues (10). He goes on to confirm it on the 1962 Rome disc, Chetís Back, in a quite superb trio of blues tracks at quick, medium and slow tempos respectively (15).  The three pieces are Barbados, Ballata In Forma Di Blues and Blues In The Closet.  The comeback period finds him demonstrating this inventive and swinging feel for the 12-bar blues.  It can be heard to advantage in the album Once Upon A Summertime where Baker offers a distinguished treatment of Kenny Dorhamís Shifting Down (16) while his playing is even better on another version of the same blues in the live album Daybreak recorded two years later at the Montmartre in Copenhagen (22).

 

            The 1956 Florence Concert has also happily been reissued.  Here Baker really stretches out Ė and not always to his advantage.  A Night In Tunisia was already becoming a tired be-bop standard in 1956.  Chet gives us nine choruses.  His opening is uninspired and  as he goes on he gets worse.  It is the worst solo on this piece that I have ever heard (12).  Of course, this is a jazz concert album as they often used to be; poorly recorded but also undoctored Ė warts and all Ė so perhaps Baker had a right to appear a little erratic.  Patience is rewarded by very good solos on his favorite, Stella By Starlight (11) and on Chekeetah (12).  Back in the States later that year, Baker and Freeman made their reunion album.  There is nothing erratic about anyoneís playing here and Bakerís solo on Love Nest is every bit as good as the Mosaic liner notes claim (7).  The same driving, resourceful playing is to be found on the 1962 Rome session that teams him up with old friends like Bobby Jaspar and ReneThomas.  Well You Neednít, Pent Up House and Blues In The Closet are outstanding in this respect (15).

            One soon discovers that in the Comeback period from the mid-seventies onward he has lost none of these virtues.  They are much in evidence on the studio albums Once Upon A Summertime and Blues For A Reason recorded in 1977 and 1984 respectively.  Baker finds himself in inspiring company on both occasions.  Gregory Herbertís tenor matches Bakerís inventiveness in the 1977 disc on which Harold Dankoís intelligent piano is also to be heard (16).  The late-lamented and always inventive Warne Marsh gives added interest to Blues For A Reason.  Moreover both records have very good rhythm sections.  A rhythm section with which Chet performed on a more regular basis in the late seventies evidently stimulated him in the same kind of way and helped him achieve another of his finest recordings: Chet Baker Live At Nickís recorded in Amsterdam in 1978 (17).  A studio album with the same group ( but Jean-Louis Rassinfosse taking over from Scott Lee on bass) finds the band somewhat out of form.  Jeff Brillinger swings it less effectively while both Baker and Phil Markowitz are bereft of ideas oat times.  Still, there is another good uptempo blues and solid work from the leader on three of his favorites, Blue Room, If I Should Lose You and The Best Thing For You Is Me (18).

            It is well known that, depending on the state of his health, one of the most urgent physical difficulties under which Chet labored was sheer lack of physical strength.  This must have been a particularly acute problem for the man who, since way back in 1952 with Mulligan ( remember his opening on Freeway) had consistently blown the longest lines in jazz on the trumpet.  This in turn gives particular point to Per Husbyís sleeve note to a fascinating live album recorded in Oslo during a tour of Norway in the late summer of 1983 and featuring Chet on two club dates backed by excellent Norwegian rhythm sections (31).  I too gasp at the length of line combined with control and invention on the opener Margarine.  The same applies to the impressively sustained Night Bird on side two.  Another splendid live album, Tune Up, recorded in Paris three years earlier, finds Baker in a similar if less aggressive mood on the two lengthily swingers:  the title track and Thereíll Never Be Another You (24).  His six choruses of muted trumpet on the second of these numbers are particularly fine.  For some it will seem a pity to have to wade through seven choruses of Baker scat in order to get to the other soloists, Nicola Stilo on flute, and the very talented guitarist, Carl Ratzer.  Bakerís solo falls between these two contributions and is worth waiting for: that singular amalgam of fluency and lyricism, volubility and reticence; as few of the right notes as possible in the right places, and then, when the moment is ripe, the 24, 32, 48, 64 note phrase that is so beautiful that you wish it would go on forever.  Two days later this bunch of joyous improvisers (minus Al Levittís drums) were on similar form to record another live set at the same venue (25).  1980 was evidently one of Chet Bakerís good years.  Again, there is nothing fragile or musically short-winded about the album In Your Own Sweet Way, recorded at the Subway Club in Cologne.  Chet resurrects one of Russ Freemanís originals, No Ties, which occupies over 26 minutes on side one.  Bakerís solo is 14 minutes long and except for one lapse where he loses track of the changes for eight bars, every chorus he blows has something new to say (26). 

            I have said nothing so far about Baker the ballad player on these 38 discs.  Again, his consistency across the years is quite striking.  Ballads made him famous in the first place, of course, although I have always felt that the celebrated recording of My Funny Valentine with the Mulligan Quartet that even found itís way into the charts, owed more to Mulliganís arrangement than to Bakerís trumpet, effective though it is.  Anyone looking for Baker the inspired interpreter of ballads will need to look hard to find him in the Mulligan Quartet recordings.  Pace the distinguished alternate takes of Darn That Dream, ballads were not the stock-in-trade of this remarkable band.  Bakerís ballad art really flowers on vinyl with the Chet Baker Quartet recordings, and especially the live sets.  The Ann Arbor Concert finds him offering us a My Funny Valentine to really savor as well as lively interpretations of Lover Man and that other Parker favorite My Old Flame (1).  The Tiffany Club sides provide us with another exquisite My Old Flame (3) and an affecting Moonlight In Vermont (4).  In the Fresh Sounds Box of Barclay reissues, again it is the quartet disc with Gustin, Bond and Dahlander that provided the great music.  Lover Man does not reach the heights of the Ann Arbor performance, but there is a beautiful Tenderly, moving in its simplicity, and an even more inspired Autumn In New York (9).  We have similar opportunities to hear Baker stretch out on ballads in the New York recordings he made for Riverside in 1958-59 and which are gradually being reissued.  Of these, the album Chet was clearly a showcase for Baker the ballad player (13).  It has remained over the years one of the most popular discs the trumpeter ever recorded.  It seems to me to be the least inspired of the 38 discs under discussion Ė and that despite a most distinguished personnel involving the likes of Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers Ė Bill Evans.  As far as I know these Riverside recordings were the only time the two supreme lyrical improvisers in post-1945 jazz found themselves together in the same studio.  The results of the Baker-Evans enterprise are strangely bland.  The pretty lady on the cover symbolizes well the popular conception of  Bakerís significance in the jazz world from early in his career.  The music is as pretty as the lady but lacks a sense of commitment and any sound of surprise.  Still, it retains its popularity, so can all those fans be wrong?  For my money, the only ballad track (Polka Dots And Moonbeams) on Chet Baker in New York, a hard blowing and swinging album made for Riverside the same year, is superior to anything on Chet.  Bakerís empathy with Al Haig on this excellent album seems to me far greater than it was with Evans (14).  The album from the Comeback Years that most obviously, on first hearing at least, lacked the sound of surprise is the admittedly more varied and more interesting Rendez-Vous of 1979 (21).  The swinger is a most spirited rendition of Secret Love on which Chet solos very well indeed.  The record contains a good blues and a fine interpretation of Whatís New: but Round Midnight and Darn That Dream are a big disappointment.  Several more albums of the seventies and eighties most obviously concentrate on the lyrical and ballad aspects of Bakerís art.  Two of these struck me as disappointing at first but subsequently grew on me dramatically.  From the prolific year of 1979 comes The Touch Of Your Lips.  Guitar and bass was an accompaniment that Chet favored in his last years.  It brings out the best in him on these six standards that are given deceptively simple, and dare I say, loving treatment by Baker.  Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Doug Raney (20).  On several of these cuts, especially Blue Room, he brings off the great ballad playerís trick playing the head quite simply but in such a way as to convince you that he is saying it all and making the listener aware of something very familiar on one level, and on another , making an old tune sound as if it is being heard for the first time.  The same personnel plays on the live albums Daybreak and Some Day My Prince Will Come, and exhibits a similar degree of commitment on the likes of Broken Wing, In Your Own Sweet Way and the title tracks of these two albums recorded at the Montmartre (22, 23).  Mr. B, recorded in Holland four years later, is also an attempt to showcase the lyrical Chet Baker (30).  As it happened, there is only one genuine ballad piece on the record; Charlie Hadenís Ellen And David, a Baker favorite that offers us delicate, understated solos from the leader, Michel Grallierís piano and Ricardo del Fra on bass; but the music is all profoundly melodic.  Arrangements and interpretations are calculated to bring out the beauty of the melodic line on all six pieces.  Another live session recorded in the course of Chetís already mentioned Scandinavian tour of 1983 finds him in inspired form on a lengthy and absorbing record.  This time we are in Gothenburg at the Nefertiti, where Chet is backed by the very sympathetic Ake Johansson Trio (32).  Given the exceptional quality of the music, some may regret the absence of up-tempo numbers.  Only Beatrice at medium pace provides variation from the diet of slow ballad performances; but if like me you donít mind this, you should enjoy the music.  Two of Chetís favorites have pride of place:  Ellen And David is explored at length; and then there is the gem of the record Ė J. J. Johnsonís Lament.  This is another tune that obsessed him in his last years.  You will find it on Chet Baker At Capolinea (33).  Here in Sweden, perhaps spurred on by an appreciative audience or by the particularly committed backing of his Swedish rhythm section, Baker seems positively transfigured.  If ever there was a track among the many discussed in this retrospective that illustrated how and why it is that jazz musicians are prepared to live and die for the art, it is this one.  Finally the slightly funky No Problem, also a product of Bakerís visits to Denmark in 1979, finds him in the same studio as another battle-scarred veteran of bebop Ė Duke Jordan.  With Pedersen and the subtle drumming of Norman Fearrington, they explore a number of glorious tunes.  The music is mainly slow but rarely lacks tension (19). 

            Perhaps the biggest, and most unexpected, revelation for me in this survey has been the versatility of Chet Baker.  One of the best known pieces of received knowledge about Baker has been that he was a limited player.  This is exposed as another myth on the strength of these recordings.  The Comeback Years especially have found him recording with the some distinction in a variety of moods with a variety of musicians (most of whom were much younger than he) and combinations of instruments.  In the prolific year of 1983 he also found time to record in Italy a novel-sounding album with a sextet featuring his old friends Nicola Stilo, Michel Graillier and Ricardo del Fra, playing mainly originals by members of the band.  Pride of place though, must go to Bruno Martinoís haunting Estate, an ideal vehicle for the broader, darker tone that Baker employed when the tune and the mood were right.  There is a lovely piano work here from Grallier and stupendous bass playing from Ricardo del Fra on all tracks (33).  The year before found Baker in New York with a quartet featuring the compositions and the neat marimba vibes playing of Dave Friedman (29).  Here the tone employed most by Baker is quite different much more reminiscent of the featherlight, almost flute-like, tone he used on some of the original Mulligan Quartet tracks.  This trumpet tone blends at times quite magically with marimba or vibes.  The music runs the gamut of moods and styles from the up-tempo, angular aggression of Syzgies to the diaphanous Shadows.  This is quartet playing in the profoundest sense.  Buster Williams and Joe Chambers get their share of solo space and make the most of it.  All four men work for one another.  In fact, this has always been a characteristic of Baker right back to the Mulligan days:  working for the band,  Bakerís idiosyncratic and multifaceted musical personality suffuses the last two albums mentioned.  It permeates most of his other notable collaborations on record in the Comeback Years.  Chet Baker At Nicks is a good example.  Bakerís versatility could not be clearer than in these four, long tracks from 1968 while Baker, Markowitz, Lee and Brillinger demonstrate what a well-knit group they were.  This album offers a microcosm of Bakerís art.  The very swift The Best Thing For You Is Me finds him in commanding form.  This Is Always, to my innocent ears at least, is one of Bakerís best vocals on record.  Broken Wing offers us another example of Chetís lyricism at its most gripping.  Finally, the bossa nova performance, Beautiful Black Eyes, is full of swinging teamwork.  Besides a fine solo, Bakerís great contribution is that of injecting into the bossa nova that unique Chet Baker sound and atmosphere, renewing the jazz bossa nova and rendering it unrecognizable from the so familiar and rather tired idiom laid down by Getz and Co. in the sixties (17).  The much more recent Tokyo concert, Memories, finds him performing a similar service with different personnel but equally thrilling results on Tom Jobimís Portrait In Black And White (38).

            The 1985 studio album, Chetís Choice, featuring Bakerís other long-term collaboration in recent years, his partnership with the brilliant Belgian guitarist Phillip Catherine, is another example of his versatility (36).  He matches Catherineís breathtaking virtuosity at all tempos, and most spectacularly on the very quick Conception.  This is another swinging record, full of light and life.  Chetís trumpet really sparkles here.  Given the consistently high quality of Bakerís playing on almost all the live albums in my list, it is a little strange that the concert recorded the same year and featuring the same personnel lacks the verve of Chetís Choice.  Chet is decidedly below par.  Here, only Love For Sale comes up to scratch, largely due to Catherineís lovely guitar work (35).  The same tune does so again on the penultimate album under review, Candy , in which Baker is partnered by Michel Graillier and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (37).  This disc beautifully recorded, also contains the only interpretation I know recorded by Chet Baker of Miles Davisís  Nardis.  Chet contrives, as so often, to appropriate and renew this much played tune.  He is on top form throughout this excellent album, tackling a variety of material with authority.

            I called this piece The Wages Of Lyricism.  This is an ambiguous phrase in Chet Bakerís case.  Lyricism made him and some would say, for reasons too complex to articulate here, that it also broke him.  This is one arguable message that comes out of the film Letís Get  Lost.  However, in Memories, a June 1987 live date with Harold Danko, Hein Van Der Gayn and John Engels, Baker demonstrated that neither his commitment to his art nor his lyrical muse had deserted him.  He was still collecting his wages in return for a lifetime devoted to jazz (38).

                                                                  * * *

                                                                Records

(1)  The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings of Chet Baker Quartet with Russ

     Freeman (Mosaic MR4-113 Disc 1.

(2)   As above Disc 2.

(3)   As above Disc 3

(4)   As above Disc 4.

(5)   The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings of the Chet Baker Quartet with Russ  

        Freeman  (Mosaic MR4-122) Disc 1.

(6)    As above Disc 2.

(7)   As above Disc 3.

(8)   Chet Baker Quartet (BLP-8409) (FSRĖ 526).

(9)   Chet Baker Quartet (BLP-84017) (FSR-527).

(10)  Chet Baker and his His Quintet With Bobby Jaspar (BPL8402) (FSR-528)

(11)  Chet Baker Live In Europe 1956 Vol. 1 (JA5240).

(12)  As above Vol. 2 (JA5246)

(13)  Chet Baker (Riverside RLP 1135)

(14)  Chet Baker In New York (Riverside RLP 12081)

(15)  Chet Is Back (French RCA PM 31256)

(16)  Once Upon A Summertime (AH 9411)

(17)    Live At Nicks (CrissCross 1027)

(18)    Two A Day (All Life AL 007)

(19)  No Problem (SteepleChase SCS 1131)

(20)  The Touch Of Your Lips (SteepleChase SCS 1142)

(21)  Rendez-Vous (Bingow BGW 04)

(22)  Daybreak (SteepleChase  SCS 1142)

(23)  Someday My Prince Will Come (SteepleChase SCS 1180)

(24)  Tune Up Ė Chet Baker Live In Paris (Circle RK 2580/32)

(25)  Conception (RK 27680/32)

(26)  In Your Own Sweet Way (RK 22386/26)

(27)  My Funny Valentine Ė Chet Baker Group Live In Koln (RK23581/24)

(28)  I Remember You (RK23581/28)

(29)  Peace (Enja 4016)

(30)  Chet Baker Trio:  Mr B (Timeless SJP 192)

(31)  The Improviser (Cadence CJR 1019)

(32)  Chet Baker Live In Sweden With The Ake Johansson Trio (Dragon DRLP 56)

(33)  Chet Baker At Capolinea (Red Door NS 2060

(34)  Blues For A Reason (CrissCross 1010)

(35)  Strolliní (Enja 5005)

(36)  Chetís Choice (CrissCross 1016)

(37)  Candy (Sonet SNTF 946)

(38)  Memories (PaddleWheel K28P6491)

                           * * *

(Ed note:  Bob wanted us to point out that this article was written before the market was flooded with CD reissues, many of which have extra, unreleased tracks which are not mentioned in the article.  A few minor (mostly typographical) changes have been made but to include all of the CD issues of the LPís noted would have meant re-writing the entire article.  The editors of CHETíS CHOICE wish to express their appreciation to Bob Oakley and Jazz Journal International for allowing us to reprint this article.  We feel it is one of the best reviews of an entire segment of Chet Bakerís work ever published.  Bob is in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham, England, and a subscriber to CHETíS CHOICE.)