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Mention “cool jazz” to someone and they may see a myriad of images in their heads. A darkened room, a basement somewhere in 1940’s New York, groups of people in dark glasses clicking to brushed drums and booming double bass; or they might just hear elevator music. Some may go further, seeing Miles Davis, suited and booted, straining to wring every last blue note from his trumpet, or Thelonious Monk sat hunched over his piano hammering chords with muster. What’s less likely, is the image of a fair haired, extremely handsome young white man, stylishly dressed and cradling his trumpet or delivering heartfelt standards with his glowing voice. But this man is Chet Baker, and he is just as exciting, dangerous and utterly captivating as any of the 20th Century’s Jazz greats.
Born in 1929, Chesney Baker Jr. grew up in California after his family moved from Oklahoma in the wake of the Depression. After leaving school at just 16, his parents enlisted him in the army where, while stationed in Berlin, he played for the 298th Army Band having been a trumpeter since junior high. He was discharged from the army first for marijuana possession and again deliberately to pursue a career in music full time. Chet’s rise to popularity came quickly, playing many shows with drummer Charlie Parker in 1952 before making a commercial debut with Chet Baker Sings; returning to a musical skill from childhood. The album earned widespread acclaim from critics and the public alike and Chet made several other defining releases throughout the decade culminating in 1959’s Chet and its 1962 follow up Chet is Back!, which would be his last for 12 years. Baker’s career was marred and his notoriety fuelled by a very public drug addiction that lead to much of his later recordings passing into obscurity and out of taste. Nevertheless, his early work remains essential listening for anyone wanting to explore the golden age of cool jazz and the following albums are as good a place as any to start.
Chet Baker Sings
An oddity when compared to the majority of Chet’s other recordings with his vocals and not his unique style of playing taking centre stage. Still, moments of soloing are still exquisite; intimate and melodic on tracks My Buddy and But Not For Me it is classic Baker and proves his sensitivity to the quietly rolling drums, bass and piano behind him. This knowingness comes across too in the gentle crooning as he gives himself up to young and unrequited love on almost every track; but especially Time After Time, I Fall In Love Too Easily and his popular rendition of My Funny Valentine. The most instantly accessible of the records here and a great example of Chet’s enormous talent early on.
Best Tracks: Let’s Get Lost (featured on later versions), I Fall In Love Too Easily, My Ideal
Returning to a style he knew well, Chet and his “lyrical trumpet” (as the album was subtitled) sketch out moody and more traditional numbers with a superb cast of supporting musicians, Pepper Adams saxophone on Tis Autumn to name only one. As for Chet, his playing has always been to me an extension of his vocal talents, September Song and How High The Moon are laden with sweet and soulful phrases that the rest of the band build and solo over. In particular the closer, Early Morning Mood exemplifies the skill needed to turn a sparse rhythm and trumpet riff into a track, and an album, that longs to be returned to again and again.
Best Tracks: How High The Moon, Time On My Hands (You In My Arms)
Chet Is Back!
Chet’s last great album and absolutely his most expansive. Now backed by the Chet Baker sextet, the band tear fast and loose through more hard bop influenced tracks such as superb opener Well You Needn’t. Baker’s playing too, while still distinctively vocal in style, feels more expressive than ever with longer solos and more breaks and grooves to elaborate on than ever before. Pent Up House continues the bop feel with cascading guitar lines and frenetic drums while Chetty’s Lullaby recorded with Ennio Morricone and reissued in 2003 allows melody to shine through with strings and one of Chet’s finest vocal performances. For shear breadth of talent, this album remains the best of this trilogy for me and, for a man who never reached 60 and spent his later years fallen from grace, its blues are a towering achievement.
Best Tracks: Well You Needn’t, Blues In The Closet, Over The Rainbow