Chet was back with a vengeance.
Chet Baker (trumpet), Bobby Jaspar (tenor saxophone, flute), Amedeo Tommasi (piano), René Thomas (guitar), Benoit Guersin (bass), Daniel Humair (drums)
on January 5-15 at RCA Italiana Studios, Rome
as RCA 10307 in 1962
Well, You Needn’t
These Foolish Things
Over The Rainbow
Ballata In Forma Di Blues
Blues In The Closet
The man and the myth. Misunderstandings about Chet Baker are ubiquitous. Everything about the hip junkie and hobo oozed jazz. Cool cat, good copy. No shortage of hangers-on that love to share so-called badass experiences with the iconic trumpeter. The portrayal of Baker in Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost features wonderful music but is shamelessly romantic. The saga continues with the Dutch movie My Foolish Heart, a silly movie that is marked by outstanding trumpet playing by Dutch trumpeter Ruud Breuls. Better read Dutch bassist and writer Jeroen de Valk’s Chet Baker; His Life And Music, a close account of Baker’s life and career that debunks many myths, among those the belief that Baker was murdered in his Amsterdam hotel room and the stories that his teeth were kicked out and admirers recorded Baker’s trumpet playing outside the walls of jail in Italy. Plenty of good jazz stories remain once the fairy tales have worn out.
The man and the music. What can I say? Baker’s discography is extensive and getting back into the work of Baker now and then is a joy, picking old favorites and discovering new ones in the process. Inevitably, there are let-downs. Baker, in particularly bad shape in the 1960’s, made his share of mediocre records. Hours of Baker on end leads to a craving for a little variety, in the case of Baker the hunger for spicy hot trumpet. But no mistaking, there’s nothing like Chet Baker’s cushion-soft lyricism, pure gold, pure sunlight, pure melody, pure angels playing doctor in the snow…
Remember what Buddy de Franco reportedly said: “We were all jealous of his talent.”
And Hank Jones: “Chet’s playing affected many people, from the standpoint of its simplicity. (…) His playing was simple – perhaps! But he had complex chords in mind. He may have been dancing all around, but he was conforming exactly to the chord progressions of the tune, or of the tune as he had arranged the chords. It only appeared to be simple. This is probably the best expression of an artist – when the artists can make something appear to be simple. And yet underneath, it was complicated harmonically.” (Gene Lees, Waiting For Dizzy)
If they say so. And him that’s got ears and them that love Chet Baker cherish the man and the music, unless you once started off with his Mariachi Brass LP’s on World Pacific and couldn’t be bothered. So much to explore but time and again I fail to snatch Hazy Hugs from the bins, his record with the Amstel Octet on Timeless in 1985. Baker didn’t bother to take off his bathrobe and change garb for the photo shoot. Night and/or day, who cares. Having lately focused on ‘straight-ahead’ Chet, I naturally gravitated to revisits of And Crew on Pacific Jazz from 1956, a solid record featuring Bobby Timmons and In New York featuring Johnny Griffin and Philly Joe Jones on Riverside from 1958. Riverside’s label boss Orrin Keepnews put Baker in different settings – climaxing with the vibrant and smooth vocal album It Could Happen To You – but also opted for a hard bop album.
In New York is excellent though I feel that something’s missing. Hot trumpet perhaps. Both And Crew and In New York – as well as the excellent bop-inflected Playboys with Art Pepper and Phil Urso – were made in between problematic encounters with the law and jail sentences on drugs charges. In 1959, Baker knew the net was closing in and fled to Europe. During his first sojourn to Europe in 1955, Baker found himself in Paris, jazz-minded capital of France, smoky Bohemian cellar of existentialism, turtleneck-sweatered paradise of croissant and cool. Small wonder they loved Chet Baker over there. The Barclay label fancied the trumpeter and gave him the opportunity to record with fellow traveler and pianist Dick Twardzik. Twardzik tragically died from a heroin overdose in Paris. Their finest cooperation was The Chet Baker Quartet (or Rondette), a record of challenging compositions by Adam Zieff. Lovely record!
Baker was warmly received in Europe but it wasn’t all fun and games. To quote The Grateful Dead: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind, Casey Jones you better watch your speed.” The establishment was keen to bust Baker and the trumpeter finally was arrested and indicted in Italy, serving his sentence in Lucca. Baker finally got out of prison at the tail end of 1961. He recorded Chet Is Back in January 1962, arguably the finest of his bop and hard bop albums, quite amazing considering his circumstances.
The Bakerman was back on track, his sound confident and bright, his solos replete with ideas and impromptu deviations that make clear the trumpeter felt like a fish in the water. Baker’s free-spirited handling of Monk’s melody of Well, You Needn’t, which also features a spontaneous stop-time chorus, and the clarion-call of the high note that ends his solo of Parker’s Barbados are intriguing cases in point. Ever the great ballad man, Baker’s renditions of These Foolish Things and Over The Rainbow abundantly affirm Hank Jones’s theory of Baker’s greatness.
It’s a consistent album, completed by Star Eyes, Rollins’s Pent-Up House, Pettiford’s Blues In The Closet and Tomassi’s Balatta In Forma Di Blues. Baker is matched by his European partners. The pan-European fest features the Belgian guitarist René Thomas, tenor saxophonist and flutist Bobby Jaspar and bassist Benoit Guersin, Italian pianist Amedeo Tommasi and Swiss drummer Daniel Humair. They’re hot, fresh, bubbling with joy and anticipation. That’s what I love about Baker’s cooperation with the crème de la crème of Europe: regardless of excellent American counterparts, this one’s got the edge.
René Was Back as well, the guitarist from Liège had spent a couple of years in the USA and received compliments by cooperators Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Back in Europe improved his Jimmy Raney-based style. He’s one of a kind, intense, hypnotizing, employing a lilting, gypsy-like tone. The wealth of ideas and blues variations that Thomas displays on Blues In The Closet gets near Planet Parker. The spicy, mature playing of Bobby Jaspar, acclaimed tenorist and flutist that had already been featured on recordings with J.J. Johnson, Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, is another great asset of Chet Is Back. A great day in Rome.
A couple of years later, Prestige released a series of records that were culled from one session: Smokin’, Groovin’, Comin’ On, Cool Burnin’ and Boppin’ featuring George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey. Omnipresent, lauded albums on jazz fora on the internet highway. But apart from the fact that copying the title word play of Miles Davis’s pioneering hard bop records on Prestige from 1955/56 was not a good idea, I’m not convinced of its so-called excellence. It’s a great band but Baker sounds uninspired and tired.
As straight-ahead jazz goes, Baker’s albums on Steeplechase, recorded live at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen are highlights of his career. Then there’s The Improviser from 1983, Chet Baker firing off bop crackers with a very good Scandinavian band. So much to explore…