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Chet Baker

It Could Happen to You

(Riverside; US: 28 Sep 2010; UK: 4 Oct 2010)

...And it did. All of it.

Chet Baker. Read those two words, and what comes to mind? There aren’t many jazz musicians in the entire history of the form whose very name can inspire an immediate, gut level reaction among just about anyone who’s heard it before.  Chet Baker is one of them. Search the internet and you’ll find tribute sites dedicated to the “great” Baker. But you’ll also find plenty of material like Will Layman’s PopMatters review of a 2005 Baker compilation, in which Layman calls Baker “an…ultimately unexceptional jazz musician”. Now as ever, two decades-and-counting since his death, Baker remains a polarizing figure.


Why? Well, he is an icon, and was for the better part of his career. And the very nature of icons is polarizing. You either go all in and pay your respects, or leave the room shaking your head. What Nico is to the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture, Baker is to jazz. Both were talented, but that talent was foremost for delivering their art in a particular style that the very word “cool” was invented for. Both started off young and beautiful, then became addicted to hard drugs and quickly became old and ugly, and died strange, accidental deaths. But, for listeners and fans, most of whom had not witnessed them, the years of ugly only put the flash of cool into stronger relief and, daresay, had a retroactively romantic effect. To evaluate Nico as a singer or Baker as a jazz musician is valid, but is also beside the point. With them, the matter is not one of style and substance. The style is the substance, and the singing and playing are all part of the package deal.


Unlike Nico, though, Baker became a bona-fide popular star, which few of even the most revered jazz musicians ever did. This surely created some backlash that has rippled through Baker’s legend. That a good part of this popularity was down to his singing… well, for many jazz purists that was simply reprehensible. And those people might point to an album like It Could Happen to You as a prime exhibit.


Baker was cool, all right. But he exhibited none of the aggressive, chest-puffing, downright intimidating cool that went with most of the other big names of the day.  His coolness was passive rather than active, accidental rather than inevitable, devoid of sexuality. Just look at the flat-out hokey cover art for It Could Happen to You. This guy isn’t dangerous. At least not yet.


Baker’s voice needs little explanation. If you’ve heard it, you know what it’s about. “Unvarnished”.  “Pleasant”. “Charismatic”. “Androgynous”. It Could Happen to You was made a few years after the Chet Baker Sings breakthrough, and some critics have noted a more mature, studied voice. Yes, Baker manages a little vibrato here and there, and he does emote a bit more than on earlier recordings, but this is still textbook Baker. There’s just something about that voice, especially the way it just drops effortlessly into the lower notes, that evokes a nostalgia that exists on a plane that is independent from technical merit. 


Even so, it does benefit from song selection. “Do It the Hard Way” and “The More I See You” are the best of the uptempo numbers, jaunty without being too silly. But uptempo numbers don’t allow as much space for atmosphere to settle in, which means that inferior numbers like “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” have a tendency leave Baker sounding more bored than detached or ponderous. The ballads always suited Baker best, and “I’m Old Fashioned” and especially the sadly prophetic, down-and-out lament “Everything Happens to Me” will definitely leave smoke in your eyes.


Baker does play trumpet on a couple tunes, in his usually pleasant way, but there’s nothing that comes close to a career highlight in that respect. Also, something has been made of Baker’s first recorded scatting, on the title track. And the reality of “Chet Baker scatting” is about as inviting as it seems when you read the phrase. Baker had cool to spare, but soul? Not a chance.


The sound on this remaster is nice. Baker’s voice is up-front, of course, but there’s plenty of clarity to the able backing of the veteran session men in the studio. No one gets a chance to cut loose, but Kenny Drew does some fine, ear-perking piano work, especially on “I’m Old Fashioned”.


It Could Happen to You was recorded by a 29-year-old man whose body was already enslaved to the heroin that affected so many of his jazz brethren.  In the end, there was nothing iconic, romantic, or cool about Baker’s drug and alcohol abuse and its effect on the things he did and the things that were done to him. Now, though, that dark side seems like a dream, one from which we can awaken to the sound of that singular voice.

Rating:

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.


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