This two disc set from Shout! Factory, like their set on Chet Baker’s mentor Dizzy Gillespie, is simply spectacular. Chet Baker, following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole, laid the groundwork for Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli and the like. He was an exceptional musician and as stunning a vocalist as an instrumentalist. This collection surveys both aspects of his career in separate CDs labeled Trumpeter and Singer.
Ever the consummate jazz musician, Chet Baker was nevertheless something of a musical illiterate, having only a rudimentary ability to read music. He was gifted, instead, with an uncommonly intuitive ear. He sang as quietly and introspectively as he played the trumpet, though there was fire in the instrument that was less apparent in the vocals. Still, the singer and the player weren’t diametrically opposed aspects of the musician. Baker’s sense of timing and exquisite phrasing were readily apparent in both arenas. His crystalline tone and command of the horn rank him among a handful of the giants.
His was a life steeped in high offstage drama, as Ernest Hardy’s extensive and instructive notes remind. Heroin ravaged his body over an extensive period of use and he was frequently arrested for crimes committed to feed the drug habit -- but the music remained largely brilliant throughout, as evidenced by that covered in this collection.
Chet Baker the vocalist was at his best on tunes like the cool and sexy "Let’s Get Lost" and the wry "Everything Happens to Me," a song that bemoans a series of unfortunate events that culminate in falling in love -- two absolutely perfectly delivered tunes. Though the booklet notes pose the theory that Baker kept tight reigns on his vocal range due to a fear of falling out of tune, he still retained the ability to be thoroughly emotive and commanding of his instrument. On "Keep An Eye on Spring," for instance, his vocalizing is nearly as satisfying as Ella or Sinatra at their best.
"Born To Be Blue," a trio date with pianist Bobby Scott and the jazz guitar icon Kenny Burrell, showcases Baker’s haunting vocals in a blues context. "The Song Is You," recorded with strings and an Italian horn section casts him in the role of crooner, though by contrast his version of Elvis Costello’s "Almost Blue," recorded in Tokyo in 1987 with pianist Harold Danko on the set, proved that the hipster was still alive and well.
"What’ll I Do" is a perfectly realized tune for its extended trumpet intro and vocal splendor. The live take on "There Will Never Be Another You," recorded at a club in Tulsa in 1982, features a fantastic trumpet solo that showcases his inventiveness, superb chops and brilliant timing. The date with Kenny Drew, Philly Joe Jones and George Morrow that produced the 1958 version of "My Heart Stood Still" is a highlight, as well.
A vocal version of "My Funny Valentine" recorded April 29, 1988, two weeks prior to his mysterious death, closes the vocal sessions, just as the classic 1952 instrumental version recorded with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet opens the instrumental disc. The effectiveness of strings is demonstrated on "Love Walked In," about half of which is dedicated to a beautiful lush ballad wrapped in strings before kicking into a blistering finale with Zoot Sims and Baker blowing up a storm.
On the haunting "Alone Together," recorded in Paris in 1955, his pacing is breathtaking. The version of Monk’s "Well, You Needn’t," recorded in Rome in 1962, is one of the highlights of the set. Baker sizzles here, as does pianist Amadeo Tommasi, guitarist Rene Thomas, tenor and flute player Bobby Jaspar, and the rhythm team of drummer Daniel Humair (whew!) and bassist Benoit Quersin. The same group delivers a gorgeous "Over The Rainbow," as well. The wonderful recording of "Chetty’s Tune," sung in Italian and backed by Ennio Morricone’s orchestra, was captured the same year.
One of the most dazzling of the instrumental numbers is the 1953 recording of Miles Davis’ "Half Nelson," with Stan Getz sharing the front line. The 1958 "When Lights Are Low" features Al Haig, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on the date.
Highlights abound here: a young John Scofield in a 1977 duet on "If You Could See Me Now"; Paul Desmond, Bob James, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and others on a 1974 Don Sebesky arranged "What’ll I Do" and a killer take on "Tangerine"; and the phenomenal version of Tadd Dameron’s "Romas" with George Coleman, Kirk Lightsey, Herman Wright and Roy Brooks on the date. Clearly Mr. Baker was not the lightweight that some have accused him of being. This is a substantive and fascinating collection of music and vital for fans of the singer, the trumpeter -- or both -- and is easily one of the year’s best releases.