Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chet Baker: The Comeback Revisited

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

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles decided that it might be nice to re-post this piece for two reasons: [1] it had been too long since Doug Ramsey's fine writing about Jazz had been featured on the blog and [2] to celebrate the return from copyright restriction of one of the two videos that accompanied the original posting. 

I always thought that for Chet Baker, playing a beautiful, melodic solo was as easy as putting the trumpet to his lips.

It seems, however, that there was a time during his career when placing the trumpet against his lips was more excruciating than musically rewarding.

The cause of this agonizing pain was the dark side of drug addiction which caught up to Chet one night in 1968 when a group of San Francisco San Francisco junkies “… relieved him of his dope money and his teeth and made him decide he’d have to give up heroin or die.”

Doug Ramsey continues the story in his insert notes to the 1974 CD, She Was Too Good To Me [CBS Associated ZK 40804; LP originally by Creed Taylor for CTI Records].

© -Doug Ramsey; used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Recorded in 1974, this was “… Chet’s first major recording since the night in San Francisco in ’68 …” when Chet encountered every brass player’s nightmare – losing one’s teeth!

Or as Chet explains to Doug: “Believe me, when a trumpet player has had his teeth pulled, it is a comeback.”

“Baker says that with the lack of self-pity that is as characteristic as the absence of hyperbole when he evaluates his artistry, past and present.

Of those early triumphs in the polls, he says, ‘I never really believed that I deserved it. As far as my playing now, I believe I have progressed conceptually, which is the important thing. At the time I won the polls, my style was very lyrical, a style the average person could listen to and understand without being overwhelmed with technique. I can still play that way, very cool, few notes, lots of empty spaces. I can also play very fly, very hard. I believe I play ten times better now than I did then. And I don't want to lose people, I want them to understand what I play on my horn.’

In this album, you’ll hear Chet play both ways, cool and “very fly." The lyricism is intact. The tone, if anything, is deeper and fuller. The celebrated similarity between Baker's instrumental and vocal phrasing is vividly displayed on those two gorgeous ballads of regret, "She Was Too Good To Me" and "What’ll I Do." The sense of loss expressed by the lyrics has never been more poignantly interpreted. And you’ll surely be able to "understand what I play on my horn" in the 16 bars of trumpet between the vocal sections of "She Was Too Good To Me." It's a classic melodic statement, in a league with Bobby Hackett's 1939 "Embraceable You," Jack Sheldon's bridge on "Then I’ll Be Tired Of You" with the Hi-Los, and Chet’s own "My Funny Valentine."

On the faster pieces, the springiness of phrasing; the floating, easy swing; the intelligent lines; the high personal sound with a touch of added brilliance; all of these elements testify to the continued vitality of an important trumpet artist. …”

With the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following video to demonstrate “the lyrical” aspects of Chet’s playing on She Was Too Good To Me.

It features Chet on Hank Mobley’s Funk in Deep Freeze  Assisting Chet on the first performance are Hubert Laws on flute, Bob James on electric piano, Ron Carter on bass and drummer Steve Gadd.  

Artistic perfection is something that every musician strives for.

With Chettie, even with broken teeth, artistic accomplishment seemed to occur as though he was in a continual state of grace and the Jazz Gods had shined a ray through him.

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