Any biography of Chet Baker will go into great depth to describe the decline that the trumpeter and vocalist underwent as a result of his heroin addiction, recount the infamous beating he suffered in San Francisco, and detail his skipping out on gigs and his self-imposed exile in Europe during the last 10 years of his life. What’s often lost in the shuffle amidst these sordid tales is that Baker created some of his most durable and moving music during those final European years. Regardless of the personal hell in which he resided, his muse, on his best days, never abandoned him.
The Sesjun Radio Shows is prime evidence that those best days still blessed him. Recorded in the Netherlands between 1976 and 1985, at several different sessions broadcasted live, Baker is uniformly outstanding on these 15 tracks spread over two CDs. His tone is sturdy and his mind is sharp as he navigates melodies and blows solos, and his vocal performances are as warm and touching in their fragility as anything he recorded in the studio during his Pacific Jazz prime. If Chet Baker was a failure as a human being, you’d never know it from the music collected here.
It didn’t hurt that he surrounded himself with uniformly excellent support players for these shows, mostly Europeans. Each of the brief sets captured here features not only a different lineup but a different configuration as well: The first four tracks (highlighted by a breathtaking opener of “There Will Never Be Another You”) feature a drumless group comprising flute, piano and bass; a 1980 set teams Baker with vibes, bass and drums. The last format is a trio, with Baker accompanied by guitarist Philip Catherine and bassist Jean Louis Rassinfosse. For one sole track, the Warren/Mack standard “This Is Always,” Baker leaves his trumpet in its case altogether, offering a vocal while Phil Markowitz (piano), Scott Lee (bass) and Jeff Brillinger (drums) take care of the music.
Even on the last of the Sesjun sessions, a little more than three years before his ugly death, Baker had lost none of his spark. His solo on “Leaving” is emotionally rich and masterfully played. Anyone listening to this music who had no clue about the artist’s life would be hard-pressed to guess that this was a man with unshakable demons.