Monday, November 14, 2016

Chet Baker Big Band

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Given the myriad recordings that Chet Baker appeared on during his forty year career, it not surprising that Chet Baker Big Band [Pacific Jazz 1229; CDP 0777 7 81201 2 4] gets short shrift [if it gets any “shrift” at all].

I think that this in part may be due to the fact that Jazz fans rarely think of Chet in a big band setting [Although, if truth be told, only four of the sixteen tracks that make up the Chet Baker Big Band contain enough instrumentation to be considered as a “big band.”]

Of course, Baker’s most famous association is as a member of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet which took place at the outset of his career in the early 1950’s.

Although he did lead a quintet and a sextet for a while, Chet is usually thought of as fronting a piano-bass-drums rhythm section.

Whatever the context, and irrespective of his continuing personal travails, Chet was one of the most original improvisers I ever heard.

And I’m in good company here because the noted and well-respected Jazz author and blogger, Doug Ramsey, who, by the way, is also a trumpet player holds a similar opinion about Chet:

“... at its best his playing still had the ability to go directly to a listener’s emotions in a way attained by few artists in any medium.” [Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers].

In his essay on The Trumpet in Jazz, Randy Sandke, also a trumpeter, maintain that “Like Bix, Chet was often the understated ‘poet’ of the horn.” [The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, Ed.].

And pianist Russ Freeman who co-led a quartet with Chet during the mid-1950’s expressed what a lot of us felt while listening to Chet Baker:

"Chet struck me as a giant player, then. You listen to the album we did in '57, the one with SAY WHEN and that unbelievable solo on LOVE NEST, and you hear how lyrical he could be even while playing fast and hard. You know, he doesn't have any idea what key he's playing in or what the chords are — he knows nothing from a technical standpoint — it's all just by ear.

Of course, we all play by ear when we play jazz, but he has nothing to fall back on. If he had a bad night, which he had occasionally, he didn't have any way to say 'Well, okay, I'll just go back and cool it and sort of walk through this path.' He didn't know how to do that — he had to rely on what his ear told him to do. And if he was not on that night, then it didn't happen.

But there would be certain nights, maybe once a week when it was absolutely staggering. To the extent where I would sit there comping for him, listening to him play, and think 'Where did that come from? What is it that's coming out of this guy? You mean I have to play a solo after that?' Now that didn't happen all the time you know, but when it did it was like he'd suddenly got control of the world.” [As told to Will Thornbury in an interview that took place in June/1987].

This walk down “Baker Street” was prompted by a recent listening to Chet Baker Big Band and a reading of Todd Selbert’s descriptive and informative insert notes to the CD.

We wrote to Todd and asked his permission so that we could share them with you and he graciously said “Yes.”

Following Todd’s annotations you’ll find a video montage that features Chet and the big band on Tenderly.


© -  Todd Selbert; copyright protected, all rights reserved., used with permission.

“Chet Baker with a big band represents something new for the trumpet player and, at the same time, a full-circle turn. Before turning to jazz in 1950, Baker's musical experience was with large Army bands. But once he became a jazz musician, the milieu in which he placed himself was limited to small groups. So here he is in 1956, back with a big band for the first time in many years.

The change in environment for Baker is an interesting one, since it places this gifted musician in a different context and permits the listener to hear him in a different way. Not only is it refreshing to hear Baker's trumpet emerge from a big band to take a solo, but it is also rewarding to hear his distinctive trumpet, with its warm, personal tone, play lead.

Chet Baker became prominent almost overnight as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952. His warmly lyrical trumpet style contributed greatly to the success of this group, his first regular job as a jazz musician. His employment with Mulligan came about as a result of Baker being recruited by Richard Bock for a Mulligan engagement Bock was producing at The Haig, a Hollywood jazz club. He was born in Yale, Oklahoma on December 23, 1929. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1940.

He played in an Army band for a couple of years and was discharged in 1948. His only formal musical training followed with a failed course in theory and harmony at El Camino College. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1950 in order to play in the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. During this hitch he became interested in jazz and began making jam sessions at local clubs. Following his discharge, he won an audition for the trumpet chair in a quintet Charlie Parker formed for a West Coast tour in mid-1952. He joined Mulligan after returning home to Los Angeles that July and formed his own quartet a year later after Mulligan was temporarily retired from the music business.

The present collection is a diverse assortment of tunes Baker was playing with his current quintet with Phil Urso, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Bond and Peter Littman. The quintet is brought up to eleven pieces on three performances ("A Foggy Day," "Darn That Dream" and "Tenderly") and a nine-piece ensemble on the remaining titles. Half the titles ("Mythe," "Chet," "Not Too Slow,” "Dinah" and "V-Line") are essentially remakes of octet performances recorded for Barclay when Chet was in Paris October 25, 1955 and March 15, 1956. Of the others, "Worrying The Life Out Of Me" was recorded by the above quintet July 1956 and "Tenderly" October 24, 1955 with a Franco-American quartet in Paris, also for Barclay.

The arrangements are designed to feature Chet and the other soloists to the degree that, with the exception of "Not Too Slow" and "Tenderly," they do not call attention to themselves, but are patently subservient to the compositions and the soloists. Arrangements for the larger ensemble pieces were written by Jimmy Heath; Urso arranged "Worrying" and his own "Phil's Blues," and the five Barclay titles were arranged by Pierre Michelot ("Mythe," "Chet" and "Not Too Slow," which are his own compositions, plus "Dinah") and Christian Chevallier (his own "V-Line"). All previous Pacific Jazz releases mistakenly credit Chevallier with the composition and arrangement of "Mythe" and "Not Too Slow" instead of Michelot, the rightful owner.

The soloists, apart from Chet, as far as I can make out, are as follows: "A Foggy Day" - Bill Perkins, Timmons. "Mythe" - Bobby Burgess, Bob Graf, Bill Hood, Fred Waters, Timmons. "Worrying The Life Out Of Me" - Waters, Timmons. "Chet" -Timmons, Urso (alto), Hood, Graf, Burgess. "Not Too Slow" - Timmons, Hood, Burgess, Graf. "Phil's Blues" - Urso (alto), Hood, Graf, Timmons, Bond, Littman. "Darn The Dream" - Perkins. "Dinah" - Burgess, Graf, Hood, Waters, Timmons. "V-Line" -Burgess, Waters, Hood. "Tenderly" - Art Pepper.

The album's bright moments, apart from Chet's solos, are the aforementioned "Tenderly," the most fully-realized arrangement herein, with Art Pepper's pretty alto solo, and "Not Too Slow," an engaging line by bassist Michelot; also, Chet's satisfying lead trumpet on "Worrying," Timmons' tasty little solo on "Phil's Blues," with its cute, teasing entrance, Perk on "Darn That Dream," and Burgess and Hood everywhere.

Although the present CD is titled CHET BAKER BIG BAND, the program is performed by three separate ensembles — none of which is a big band. (Because it was desirable to utilize the original cover art from Pacific Jazz 1229, and because the original artwork incorporate the above title, the "big band" title was used for the compilation at hand as well.) Six of the sixteen tracks are performed by a sextet.

The sextet is comprised of Chet's quartet of Russ Freeman, Carson Smith and Shelly Manne augmented by Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Bud Shank on baritone saxophone, and was recorded more than two years prior to the foregoing "big band" sessions. Three leading arrangers were engaged to fashion two charts each - Jack Montrose ("Little Man You've Had A Busy Day" and his own "Dot's Groovy"), Johnny Mandel ("Stella By Starlight" and his original "Tommyhawk") and Bill Holman ("I'm Glad There's You" and his own "The Half Dozens").

Montrose, who was then playing (tenor saxophone) and recording with an Art Pepper quintet, had previously scored a septet date for Chet (now available as GREY DECEMBER, Pacific Jazz CDP 7971602). He was to lead his own date for Pacific Jazz in 1955. Mandel had settled in Los Angeles in late 1953 after a six month tour (in the trombone section) with the Count Basie Orchestra, and was then playing bass trombone with Zoot Sims at The Haig. Up until the time of the Chet Baker Sextet recording, Mandel was best known as composer and arranger of "Not Really The Blues," which he wrote for Woody Herman's Second Herd in 1949, but he was to become celebrated in later years for his film scoring — counting compositions such as "Emily" (for The Americanization of Emily, 1964) and "The Shadow Of Your Smile" (for The Sandpiper, 1965) among his achievements.

Bill Holman, who along with Shorty Rogers and Mary Paich was becoming one of the most compelling arrangers on the West Coast (and, indeed, in all of jazz), rose to prominence with Stan Kenton. Holman joined Kenton on tenor in 1952 and was soon turning out brilliant compositions and arrangements for the Orchestra. At the time of the Baker Sextet date, Kenton had just recorded Holman's magnum opus Contemporary Concepts.

By 1954, Los Angeles was pulsing with jazz activity, ana Holman, Shank and Brookmeyer each recorded his first record date as leader early in the year. An alto player who doubles everything, Shank is found here on baritone saxophone, and appears to have come down on the side of Lars Gullin rather than Mulligan. Brookmeyer, whose burry valve trombone adds so much texture to these sides, like Baker had enjoyed his first taste of prominence with a reedman; in Brookmeyer's case it was with the Stan Getz Quartet in 1953. By spring 1954 he had effectively replaced Baker in the Mulligan Quartet.”
—Todd Selbert




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