During his two years on the Riverside label (1958-59), smooth-faced, square-jawed son of the heartland Chet Baker was an end-of-the-Eisenhower-era dreamboat, and as soft-spoken a vocalist as he was a trumpet player—unless tackling hard bop, which he did with mannered zeal. His cool mix of “James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix Beiderbecke” (historian Dave Gelly’s description) put Chet, early on, in a pantheon beyond jazz: the humble hipster hero. That he wound up abusing heroin even before his Riverside tenure meant the dreamboat would soon sail, even if his haunting musicality and subtle invention would not.
This weighty five-LP set is a testament to such dreaminess, stuffed with prints, booklet, and a solid disc of alternate versions and outtakes. The main event, however, is its pristine remastering of (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You, Chet Baker in New York, Chet, and Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe.
As on Pacific Jazz albums such as Chet Baker Sings (1954), the trumpeter spends much of It Could Happen to You with his axe by his side, crooning. Only here, his chilly, whispery rasp is lithe and limber. There’s a new confidence to his vocals that offers a graceful counterweight to an energetic, cranky set of East Coast players including pianist Kenny Drew and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Dannie Richmond. Nonchalant and nuanced, Baker—as singer and trumpeter—turns tunes like “Do It the Hard Way” and “Old Devil Moon” into intimate moments, balancing his fluid melody lines against the sniper-precise piano of Drew.
Chet Baker in New York keeps the unruly East Coast vibes, loses the gently vexing vocal lines, and relies less on Broadway and more on contemporary jazz compadres such as Bennys Golson and Carter and Miles Davis for its melodic kicks. While slow moments like Golson’s “Blue Thoughts” allow Baker & Co. stewing solitude, Owen Marshall’s “Hotel 49” and Miles’ “Solar” are aggravated bop workouts where everyone flies (including tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin). Baker, in particular, sounds freer than he has before in his still-young career as a leader. Though known for melodious simplicity and barely extending his range beyond a single octave, he worked that staff like a rib on this album.
Chet continues Baker’s effortless reach into romantic rumination with an instrumental effort costarring the likes of Bill Evans and Herbie Mann. When Baker isn’t deep in the clinches with guitarist Kenny Burrell for their tender take on “September Song,” he’s letting baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams loose on “Alone Together.”
Flutist Mann, pianist Evans, and sax man Zoot Sims help close out Baker’s tenure with Riverside on an up note: the showtunes of Lerner and Loewe. “I Could Have Danced All Night” becomes an open-ended waltz with Baker’s breezy trumpet line bucking against Mann’s sweet counterpoint, and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” grows more sensual and languorous with each Sims lick and pensive Baker solo.
The entirety of Chet Baker’s Riverside is a handsome, honeyed delight, and a true examination of the trumpeter/vocalist’s range. A must-have.
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