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Chet Baker: Chet Baker Sings, Plays

Sated by biographer James Gavin’s gustily thorough Deep in a Dream, I need no further reminders of that swirling eddy that was Chet Baker’s self-destructiveness. Yet arrive they do in wave after wave of bootleg sessions and long-lost live recordings. The latest in this dismally freakish parade is Chet Baker Sings, Plays (HighNote), recorded just over a quarter-century ago at San Francisco’s notorious Keystone Korner but only now seeing the light of day. This four-track, 50-minute session might better be named The Ghost of Beauty Past since the hollowed-out, emasculated Baker heard here is a mere shadow of his once stunning cocksureness. I’ve always been enchanted by young Chet’s angelically atonal voice. Those, however, who agree with the way Metronome reviewer Mimi Clar maligned Baker’s “abysmal vocal deficiencies” in 1954 will be delighted to know that the Sings portion of this 1978 program, featuring Roger Rosenberg (on soprano and baritone saxes), pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jon Burr, drummer Jeff Brillinger and an unidentified tenor player-all of whom run musical circles around their faded leader-is limited to a 10-minute meander through “But Not for Me.” Gone is the arrogantly cosmetic wistfulness that made the ’54 original, from Chet Baker Sings, so dangerously attractive. In its place is the fallen idol’s pained acceptance of his self-prescribed wastefulness. Better is Baker’s moodily cacophonous flugelhorn lope through Richie Beirach’s “Broken Wing” and the scorching, set-closing “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” on which the likely exhausted Chet ascribes himself a tiny but impressive supporting role. Most disappointing is Baker’s lackluster treatment of “Secret Love.” Once upon a time the teasing sexual ambiguity of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Oscar-winner would have suited the dazzling young Chet as well as it did buckskin-clad Doris Day. Here it sounds neither playful nor seductive, but just plain sad.

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