Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Chet Baker & Strings - Chet Baker
Columbia CL 549
I picked up this vintage pressing at a garage sale. I first encountered Chet Baker via Gerry Mulligan. I'm a big fan of Mulligan so naturally I investigated his famous pianoless quartet with Baker on trumpet. I really liked those recordings but I wasn't all that impressed by Baker. Then I saw Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary on Baker, "Let's Get Lost." He seemed like a jerk but there was no denying he had some kind of magnetism as a young man. The film sparked renewed interest in Baker and his records were reissued. It seemed like every time I went to a party back then, whether it was thrown by a middle-aged comic book writer or a thirtyish female film producer, Baker would show up in the music mix. I bought a few records myself which I generally liked although I'll never understand how this guy beat the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown in the 1954 "Downbeat" poll for best trumpet player. This is my favorite of his albums, although I must admit I've only heard a portion of his large discography. The concept of the album is to pair Baker and a small jazz combo (Zoot Sims, Bud Shank, Russ Freeman, Shelly Manne and Joe Mondragon) with an orchestra. The album's opening song, "You Don't Know What Love Is," begins with a string flourish that sounds kind of corny and makes me expect some muzak, but then Baker starts to play an achingly beautiful horn line that transforms the song completely. He's not the most technically accomplished player, but what a sweet tone. "I'm Thru With Love" is more uptempo and swings a little. Russ Freeman's piano solo is my favorite part of the song. "Love Walked In" features Baker exchanging lines with Sims on tenor saxophone reminiscent of his work with Mulligan. After a slow introductory section, the song jumps into a fast paced section with terrific blowing from both men. "You Better Go Now" has an arrangement by Jack Montrose that allows Baker to showcase his lyrical side and the interplay with the strings pays off strongly on this cut. Despite a somewhat corny arrangement from Marty Paich, "I Married An Angel" still features some very lovely playing from Baker and a melodic solo from Sims. The side finishes on a swinging note with the uptempo performance of "Love" with smoking solos from Baker, Freeman and Bud Shank on alto saxophone. This is one of my favorite cuts on the album. Side two opens with "I Love You" with Shank and Baker carrying the tune which is another slow pretty one. Shorty Rogers' arrangement of "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" again recalls the Mulligan Quartet as Shank and Baker interweave their instruments around each other. It is another one of my favorites on the album. Rogers also arranged "Why Shouldn't I" in which the orchestra provides a lovely framework for some mellow blowing from Sims and Baker. The pace increases for Jack Montrose's composition "A Little Duet" in which Baker and Sims really go to work for some swinging playing. It is the best cut on the album for me. I really dig the dynamic contrast between the beauty of the orchestral accompaniment and the hot playing of the horns. Russ Freeman composed "The Wind" which is an evocative moody number that is greatly enhanced by the string arrangement by John Mandel. The album concludes with Shorty Rogers' propulsive "Trickleydidlier" which ends the album on an upbeat note with strong solos from Baker and Sims. I think Baker's strength as a player was the beauty of his tone and his lyricism both of which are enhanced by orchestral support. The orchestration is rarely obtrusive or heavy-handed and the album is notable for its consistency of mood and feeling. It is so lovely and warm, that I suspect that even people who don't like jazz would probably enjoy it. Recommended for a romantic evening at home with your special someone.