It’s clear from the new set of liner notes to Chet that Orrin Keepnews does not have fond memories of the time he spent working with Chet Baker on his four Riverside Records releases.
“Regardless of outward appearances, around Chet I was always aware of that feeling of anxiety, of trying to complete my work before something had a chance to explode,” he writes. He concludes by telling us: “I rarely saw Chet in his later years, but I did run into him at a bar in San Francisco in the Eighties. He looked old and dried out, but his conversation hadn’t changed much. He was, he said, still playing great. Actually, he had a tape with him he’d like me to hear…I left quickly, not bothering much about being polite.”
Nonetheless, this album of ballads, one of four that he cut for Riverside, is really well worth hearing and belongs in the collection of anyone who cares about Baker and his music at all. The song selection is very sympathetic to Baker’s overall playing and mood, and the supporting cast is of the highest caliber. Baker is flanked by baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and flutist Herbie Mann. Bill Evans, who cut his second album as a leader, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, only a few weeks before these sessions with Baker, is in the piano chair. Guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Paul Chambers, and alternating drummers Connie Kay and Philly Joe Jones round out the group.
Both Adams’ baritone sax and Herbie Mann’s flute provide good counterpoints to Baker’s slightly melancholy trumpet sound. By now it’s a cliché (though a true one) that Baker took his sound and much of his overall musical stance from Miles Davis, but that’s true of so many trumpet players to this day that one can hardly fault Baker for it, particularly since he clearly absorbed Davis’ lessons so well.
Chet didn’t sell any better than any of Baker’s other Riverside releases, but it earned a modicum of critical praise, which certainly wasn’t the case for the vocal album It Could Happen To You or the instrumental Chet Baker in New York.
Time has been kind to this release, and that is no doubt one reason Keepnews decided to bring it out as part of this collection. Though no love was lost between producer and artist, it must be gratifying to have pulled this recording out of the bag under such difficult circumstances. And in the end, it’s the music that we’re talking about here, and the music still stands as something beautiful and quite apart from the life of its creator.
Listening to Baker’s slow-motion phrasing underpinned by Bill Evans’ dreamy chords and solo, one cannot deny that this is pure jazz and well-played jazz at that. It’s not innovative jazz, nor was it particularly so in 1959, but if jazz were reduced to its merely innovative recordings, there would be an extremely small group of performances to discuss. What’s here, though, in the words of Spencer Tracey, is ‘cherce’.