Chet Baker: Chet in Chicago

[29 January 2009]

By John Bergstrom

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Still Cool After All Those Years

Like many pop culture icons, Chet Baker is often more known for the aura he represents than the art he created.  Baker is the mysterious, handsome, preternaturally cool jazz outsider. That this calm, laconic, unflappable persona translated to his trumpet playing and singing is sometimes an afterthought.

Baker’s career can be separated into three convenient phases. In the 1950s he rose to prominence for his unique yet agreeable style. Then, like so many of his peers, he became tragically addicted to heroin. He spent most of the 1960s in virtual retirement, drug-related trouble chasing him from one European country to another. He did jail time in Italy and lost his teeth, literally. From the mid-1970s until his death in 1988, he got his career back together, still taking refuge in Europe. Though still an addict, he was by many accounts in peak form as a player, having learned to make do with dentures.

Thinking about Baker’s life, I can’t help but make a comparison to another icon of laconic cool whose career and life were cut short by unrepentant heroin use. I’m thinking about the German model/singer Nico, best known for her work with the Velvet Underground.  Both she and Baker were somehow outside the mainstream talent of the day, and respected for it. Heroin turned both old and ugly before their time. Both made latter-day livings primarily through loyal European cult followings, occasionally playing gigs in the US. Both died from falling, by means that would seem even stranger had their lifestyles not been well-known. He fell from a second-story window in Amsterdam in May, 1988. Barely two months later, she fell from a bicycle in Ibiza. The stories diverge on one crucial aspect, though. Before her death, Nico had kicked heroin and “settled down” in England. Baker remained an addicted nomad until the end.

The tragedy of Baker’s later years, even during his artistic comeback, makes a record like Chet In Chicago especially poignant. While in Chicago for a date in 1981, Baker met the young pianist Bradley Young on an autograph line. According to Young’s liner notes, the day after the gig a lonely Baker gave Young a call. The two drove to Baker’s date in Milwaukee together, reminiscing over Baker’s career the whole time. When Baker returned to Chicago in May, 1986, he once again called Bradley, this time suggesting they record. The result, a one-off, unrehearsed session, is Chet In Chicago.

As described by Young, the 51-year-old Baker was no old fogey, though the accompanying photos portray a man on whom life had clearly taken its toll. Rather, he was more than willing to talk proudly about “the old days” while simultaneously allowing a younger generation of musicians to invigorate him.  With Young, bassist Larry Gray, and drummer Rusty Jones providing the rhythmic foundation, Baker sounds comfortable yet confident on these eight tracks. While he’s clearly playing the role of sideman, sometimes sharing the spotlight with the powerhouse tenor sax of Ed Petersen, Baker makes the most of his time, offering up the melodically-sound playing he was known for. Chet In Chicago is a well-chosen, well-recorded, well-played set, heavy on bebop and easy on the ears.

The majority of the compositions here, including a pair by Miles Davis, dates to the 1940s. If your experience with Baker is rooted in his ‘50s work, you’ll be struck by how downright lively Baker can sound on this recording. From the beginning of first track “Old Devil Moon”, Baker takes the lilting melody and runs with it for two minutes until the rhythm section joins in. For “It’s You Or No One”, he tones things down a notch and takes an even more lyrical approach.

Petersen’s bold, upbeat playing mostly provides a nice juxtaposition with Baker’s more laid-back style. Baker, for his part, has no trouble keeping up with the wind-up rhythm of the Charlie Parker standard “Ornithology” or the heavy bop of Davis’ “Sippin’ At Bells”. Only on the swing time “Crazy Rhythm” does Petersen threaten to overwhelm the trumpeter. Throughout, you can just imagine Baker, hanging loose at the back of the room, laying down his parts and then sitting back and taking in the playing of the younger musicians he helped inspire.

Ballads were always Baker’s strong suit, and they provide Chet In Chicago with a pair of high points. Frankie Laine’s “We’ll Be Together Again” is sublime, Baker handling each note like it’s about to shatter in his hands. Old standby “My Funny Valentine”, Baker’s signature tune if ever he had one, gets a sincere, unrushed outing. It’s the only track in the set that Baker sings on, and that voice is still unmistakable despite the years and what sounds like poor miking. It’s muffled to the point where it’s tough to make out the words, but it’s as strong-in-weakness as ever. As the song goes on, Baker emotes more than you’re used to hearing, too, at times finding a rather gorgeous falsetto. This, combined with his playing, is a reminder that Baker, unlike Nico, took to the grave most of the artistic traits that made him so magnetic in the first place.

That the session was such a success is due in no small part to the sympathetic, rock-solid playing of Young, Gray, and Jones. Young in particular, with his effortlessly twinkling solos, sounds every bit the prodigy without stealing the show. Though at times they might sound a bit studious, the rhythm section has Baker’s back completely, giving him all the freedom and assurance he needs to do his thing. Remember, these guys had hardly played together before.

Nicely packaged and annotated as part of the Baker Legacy Sessions series for Matthias Winckelmann’s Enja label, Chet In Chicago is a pleasant surprise. Though it can’t quite be called essential, it’s probably on the top-tier of Baker’s many latter-day recordings. Most importantly, it shows that, even at the end of his career, there was a beating heart behind the aura.

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