Saturday, September 10, 2016

Chet Baker's 1950s Trumpet and Vocal Sides on Pacific Jazz

Being among the first jazz records I ever heard, Chet Baker's trumpet-and-vocal sides for Pacific Jazz of the early- to mid-1950s will always have a special place in my heart. But beyond the purely personal, these recordings, made at various studios in Los Angeles between 1953 and 1956, are some of the most perfectly crafted sides of Baker's celebrated career. Baker is definitely a singer like no other: in the liner notes to Let's Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings, a 1989 CD containing 20 of Baker's Pacific Jazz vocal tracks, critic Will Friedwald describes his approach to vocalizing as "that rara avis that's a great deal more disarming than most items which demand that adjective." Disarming is, indeed, a very appropriate way to describe both Baker's playing and singing. His singing is never exuberant and always self-contained, revealing a kind of melancholy and shyness that's appealing precisely because, as Friedwald notes, it's emotionally disarming. When he sings, perhaps more so than when he plays, Baker emphasizes his most vulnerable side, almost whispering languidly sometimes, as though he were being overheard by the microphone. In this sense, Baker is more of a crooner than one might think at first. Unlike when he's playing his trumpet, when he's vocalizing, Baker seldom strays too far away from the melody and always succeeds in putting across the lyrics in a most effective way.

On most of the 20 tracks of this best-of vocal compilation, Baker is on vocals and trumpet (his obbligatos are sometimes overdubbed), leading a quartet that also includes Russ Freeman on piano and occasionally celesta, Carson Smith on bass, and Bob Neel on drums, although on some of the tunes we get to hear other musicians such as bassists Joe Mondragon and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Shelly Manne, Peter Littman, and Lawrence Marable. As expected, the repertoire draws from the Great American Songbook (the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, &c.) but many of the songs come courtesy of Hollywood songwriters such as Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Buddy DeSylva. Baker seems to have taken many a cue from Frank Sinatra in these early years when his record label was still trying to take advantage of the fact that he was, well, rather easy on the eye, and not just on the ear. As a matter of fact, a surprising majority of the songs on this compilation are somehow related to The Voice, some of them ("Time After Time," "It's Always You," "Daybreak," "I Fall in Love Too Easily") even going back to Sinatra's years on Columbia and with Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. Of course, "My Funny Valentine" is the quintessential Baker vocal record, with its sparse introduction and its introspective vocals and lovely trumpet solo, but there are other Baker classics here, such as "But Not for Me" (taken at a rather brisk tempo, with a memorable trumpet introduction), "Just Friends," "Let's Get Lost," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "That Old Feeling." The rest of musicians back Baker in a most sympathetic way, and pianist Freeman proves to be just as important to the overall sound of the proceedings as Baker himself. Without a doubt, these 20 classic sides demonstrate that singing was an important factor in Baker's rise to prominence in the 1950s, and it was something he clearly enjoyed doing, since he would keep vocalizing almost right up to the end of his career.

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