Baker’s biography is often the stuff of nonsense and horrible stories, from the early pretty-boy photograph of modish fascination to the toothless shrunken cheeks and final gaunt look, taking in some sickening detail. Something of a personal horror at times, he can seem to be the focus of a cult of moral passivity.
Is there any reason to suppose that, other than the loss of teeth and various physical effects of drug-taking, etc., his life after that pretentiously agonized-over photo had any profound effect on his art?
Like some older trumpeters he seems to have found his way early and intuitively, and later on to have done it sometimes brilliantly, sometimes well, and on occasion not at all. His music sometimes deepened and darkened valuably, but hardly in relation to events of a life variously describable as chaotic and indeed lost.
He was very different from Miles Davis though presumably each man drew on similar influences as a lyric trumpeter. Davis was exceptional in the range of his work as a musician, the successive bands, transformations, and everything else. Detailed correlations can be recognized between his own life and the metamorphoses of his music, its technical and emotional complexities. He was singular in comparison with even the greatest of his contemporaries, Baker’s peers, who lacked Davis’s talents and ambitions. Clifford Brown and a couple of others died too young to have developed into anything comparably above Baker.
For the rest, he was the match of most in (for instance) fast bop, but distinctively so (hear The Italian Sessions for RCA Victor). His singularity was as a lyrical player, modern and especially distinguished for a simplicity which was his intuitive endowment. In life he avoided complications as much as possible, given his problems with narcotics. That did not make for a simple life. Simplicity in musical expression was a wholly other matter, the essence of his wholly singular and altogether invaluable artistic achievement. The title of a tune and a film about him, “Let’s Get Lost” marks the very opposite of his best music, where when he got back to it he was anything but lost. The stable achievement of permanent value contrasts not only with his life, but with cases such as some of the recordings here from the files of CTI, which in seeking superficial aspects of his art didn’t get to the real point of it.
There was some attempt to revamp his career and remarket him on the basis of his singing as well as instrumental talents. The outstanding critic Alun Morgan, who did once ask whether trumpeters were especially unduly prone to the temptation to sing, had earlier referred to Baker’s vocalizations as “a time-consuming activity in which he sometimes indulges”. The main reason not to reject that judgment wholesale is most audible here where following the boyish singing and strings-type backing to “What’ll I Do?”; the closer, “My Funny Valentine”, opens with Baker at his most telling on trumpet. Cool isn’t the word—the emotional depth is too great. If the audience for the live gig which produced that masterpiece (from the Carnegie Hall Concert album) applauds merely in recognition of a tune for whose performance Baker was duly celebrated, the reflective listener can’t demur from a serious appreciation. Gerry Mulligan seldom soloed better than on that track. Forget biography, the poignancy is in the music.
From the same live set and the same Baker songbook comes the lively opener, “Line for Lyons”, with Mulligan up to his best, Baker somewhat stiff and pinched, the rhythm section including electric keyboard overactive, notably the bass guitar. John Scofield’s guitar solo seems at one point to try seriously to shake it off. Who’s the vibist? What else is on that album?
From the She Was Too Good to Me album comes first the tune of that name, opening with oboe and clarinet and electric strings behind a pop vocal not in any jazz mood. The tension is off, and likewise the initially impressive trumpet solo on “Autumn Leaves” loses definition in the cloud cushions of the arrangement. Helping a fit man cross the road, the rhythm section’s too busy-busy again, with this time the drummer principal sinner. Paul Desmond was a lovely alto player; why did the keyboardist keep splashing gilt on his lily here?
“Tangerine” starts well, Desmond matching Baker beautifully before a very nice trumpet solo with real shape. Desmond manages to survive a rhythm section which goes into a chug toward the end of his contribution, and the keyboardist’s sustaining melodic development over a drummer who winds up hitting every beat he can find was an unnecessary triumph and no recommendation of this specific performance. Oh, well.
The Concierto de Aranjuez included here maybe sums up a lot, the presumably market-directed choice of a Miles Davis vehicle, and what was done with it. The impressive and forever undervalued Desmond is on alto, and instead of anything resembling Gil Evans’s scoring of the Rodrigo original for Miles Davis there’s a standard rhythm section line-up with the guitar of Jim Hall, Desmond’s partner on some wonderful recordings. Tender and atmospheric and the key to rhythmic and other continuity over the 19-and-a-quarter minutes of beautiful balladic playing, Hall and the other rhythm players rework the original as a purposive ballad jam.
Overall taking unhurriedness somewhat to excess, the virtues of Concierto‘s performance do not however include the challenging. Baker plays with the relaxation for which he was (leaving aside the terms celebrated or notorious) definitely known. Desmond for once doesn’t direct the listener’s attention but plays pretty in a cool-mood-sustaining style, verging at times on the merely decorative.
“What’ll I Do”, a selection which doesn’t deny Baker’s music’s roots in 1920s melodic conceptions, does raise questions about how far items of its character might also and not deeply, happily relax a critic’s standards. The virtues of Baker’s singing, even without the overdone synthesizer here, are a much smaller thing than what happens in the opening of “Valentine”. While it’s one thing to like him as a singer, as which he is better than Alun Morgan’s question suggests—and veterans including Buddy Tate and Jimmy Woode had similar gifts seldom displayed in public—Morgan’s point was presumably that the trumpet is simply so much more, revelation rather than relaxation. Nothing else in this hour’s music matches that marvelous closing track. One of Baker’s best, and Mulligan’s. The remainder at such distances below it, except for bits here and there which are matched on other later Baker albums without the present one’s weaknesses.
Actually the Concierto comes out as a merely good performance of something of which more might be expected—and as I write, the Scottish band Picante has just performed a version of that arrangement with great success at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival!
The singing and the sentimentalizing efforts at enhancement, the overdoing on the She Was Too Good sides, do indeed represent what Baker did supremely well, but at a low level. For Baker in music, such as the title suggests, there’s no dearth of much better than pop alternatives to this set. CTI asked too little of him, and did too much.