One might suspect that this was yet another case of a white-boy midwesterner over his head in the Big Apple. Well, one is silly. Although In New York, Baker’s first Riverside LP, is fairly unspectacular on the whole—more pleasant and vaguely familiar than far-reaching or even particularly evocative—it’s a truly interesting example of a “safe” aesthetic being surrounded by harder-edged, accomplished backing ... and having no choice but to either put up or shut up. There’s no singing here, which is unfortunate for those of us who prefer Baker’s lax yearn of a voice to his more benign trumpeting. But the blatant fun you get from listening to two different “coastal” styles meshing this comfortably ... well, that is most welcome. Baker is playful, genial and exploratory, but he never gets out of his element; if he felt like he was over his head, he didn’t show it here.
Despite the coziness, In New York was actually recorded while Baker was beginning his transition into the role of heavy junkie. This alone could have rendered the finished product a disaster, and there was also the fact that Baker was playing with a very well-seasoned band. Actually, “well-seasoned” is actually something of an understatement: tenor Johnny Griffin played with Monk, pianist Al Haig with Bird, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers both with Miles, Coltrane and Rollins. The lineup was so good that producer Orrin Keepnews—who was against signing Baker to Riverside in the first place—wanted to hide the Oklahoman under as much other playing as possible. Like many, Keepnews saw Baker as a comfortable, whiter Miles Davis, and the influence of Davis on In New York is here in spades. Or, as James Gavin put it in Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker: “Baker played so little on the record, and so weakly, that only the title made it clear who the star was”.
Though his tone is admittedly nothing special (especially compared to Miles), and though he does have a way of forming phrases that can seem clean to the point of sounding antiseptic, Baker’s melodic caress is what keeps the music grounded; much as Keepnews struggled, this really does sound like a Chet Baker album—rather than, say, a Johnny Griffin album.
The songs themselves are in Baker’s melodic comfort zone, especially “Fair Weather” and “Blue Thoughts”, the two Benny Golson titles: Baker’s not dramatic or turbulent, or even ravishing in a conventionally “romantic” sense—he just sounds alternately content and blue. Playing it safe, he never deviates much from the melodies ... nor does he put any sense of firmness to his playing like a Lee Morgan would. Ironically, the weakest cut on the CD (aside from the bonus track, a “meh” version of Fletcher Henderson’s “Soft Winds”) might well be a thin-skinned take on Miles’ “Solar”. Then again, maybe this one just suffers in comparison.
Compared to the other musicians, though, Baker’s trumpet really does sound like the “dinner music” portion of the repertoire. In New York’s liner notes do a good job of crediting the outstanding playing by the backing players, but they tellingly brush by Baker’s own performance. It’s clear that he’s a bit out of his element. But considering those backing players, this is a forgivable loss: Chambers’ solo on “Fair Weather” is faint (badly-recorded, methinks) but delirious; Griffin’s sax bursts through “Fair Weather” like a Ritalin-addled kid (aren’t they just adorable?); Haig makes some pretty ravishing leaps that are more akin to a faded early ‘30s film soundtrack than to any cool or hard camp; Jones is in top form throughout, especially when he’s allowed to fill out the already-rich coupling of Baker and Griffin with sporadic snaps and twilit-brushed cymbals.
Now, true: song titles like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” might not help those who think Baker’s west coast stylings lacked any of the acerbity that was present in New York jazz (though that one is a great title, and a lovely song as well; Haig’s harmonizing is positively swooning). But with the sweetness also comes ebullience, and the material never goes into trite territory. The first minute of “Hotel 49” is exemplary of this: by the time Griffin takes the reins, with an exhilarated Jones crashing his cymbal in tandem, it already seems amazing at how much they seem to have gotten through in only one minute. Griffin proceeds to glide, linger and hurry; he’ll hang around one note only to smudge it without a second through and leave you in the dust, à la the Roadrunner. Haig retains such an assured looseness that his every tumble feels like part of a consistent whole. And Baker loses himself; rushed-along at first, he eventually (wisely) decides to just go with the flow, and the two hushed notes he gives before Chambers’ bowed solo are a stroke of genius.
Newbies to Baker are best advised to start with a good compilation, particularly one which features both singing and instrumentals. But In New York is not misguided, nor confused. It’s just a competently-arranged outlet for a new star to play with the big guns. The fact that he could pull it off at all is impressive, but the truly notable thing is precisely that he doesn’t try to show off. New in the city, Baker plays it safe. He thinks he might get eaten up if he does anything too radical ... and he’s probably right.