February 22, 2008


A glorious moment in Chet Baker's twilight (John Vinocur, February 22, 2008, IHT)

As a young player of really exceptional melodic gifts, it was surely his moody handsomeness and softly sleek singing voice that made him famous. Years later, when his playing deepened, and became remarkable for its cloudbursts of lyricism and emotionality, what stuck was his drug addict's imploded face, his jail time, his slipping dentures, his edge-of-destruction wandering among what remained of Europe's jazz clubs.

Twenty years on since his death on May 13, 1988, at 58, you could say stop and enough. This biweekly space, which is about enjoyment in full roar (or melancholy's pleasures) wants to make the case that there is a Chet Baker double CD and DVD brilliant enough to muffle the tales of the freak show.

The album, with a quartet, is called "Chet Baker in Tokyo," and the DVD, containing two additional tracks, "Chet Baker: The Complete Tokyo Concert."

The material was recorded live in June 1987, about 11 months before his death.

The performances are remarkable because they take in, at the highest level, everything that people said Chet could do - play ballads with almost painful, poetic eloquence - and what many said he could not: blow hard and tough enough so as to make the trumpet sound its essence.

That meant, using a phrase from Art Farmer, a contemporary fairly dismissive of Baker, "you're supposed to play it like you're calling out the troops."

On "Four," a Miles Davis tune, or "Arborway," by the Brazilian musician Rique Pantoja, Baker, moving effortlessly in and out of double-time, plays runs of increasing intensity and originality that portray him as a gutty hard-bopper.

On Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," Baker captures its yearning by holding tight to the melody almost as if he were reading sheet music. With his sound and pace, the track distills what Charlie Parker said of "that little white cat" who blew "sweet, gentle, yet direct and honest."

On "My Funny Valentine," Baker's trademark tune, and the best track, the emotion and velvet is there in the brief vocal, but in contrast, so are chorus after chorus of tough, in-your-face trumpeting.

It's not calling out the troops, but jazz in its great power. It is Baker's two voices superimposed. It is as if Chet, pushing aside the years of wreckage, said: Here's the musician I am.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2008 9:16 AM

The West Coast cats get unfairly dumped on. For every wan "cool school" session, there was a inconsequential and formulaic "hard bop" session.

Posted by: Twn at February 22, 2008 12:42 PM

Agree with Twn. The West Coast stuff is often wrongfully dismissed, but what's frequently lumped together indistinguishably as "west coast" or "cool" really has a lot of deep roots in the LA music scene (including Lionel Hampton, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter's great mid-40's big band and Nat Cole's piano playing) and expressed itself in a lot of different ways....everything from the prototypical Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker sides to Gerald Wilson's big bands to the mid-size bands of Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich and Terry Gibb, to the avant garde of Eric Dolphy. And the best of the pure "cool" music (Mulligan, Getz, Shelly Manne, Buddy Collette, etc.) stands as a reminder of the importance of melody and romance in music...2 facets that were often missing from the performances of the less-than-great hard boppers.

Posted by: Foos at February 22, 2008 5:42 PM