He had the dashing good looks of James Dean, his contemporary. His jazz recordings with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan sold well in the 1950s - and are still popular among jazz fans today. He was enigmatic, this most spellbinding jazz trumpeter, unable to read a note of music, yet able to improvise complex harmonic lines with the most sophisticated jazzmen of the century. What was the key to Chet Baker's jazz, and why does his popularity, nine years after his death, continue to grow?
With due respect to my colleagues in the music criticism business, let me suggest that most critics have rigidly and inaccurately stereotyped the artist. Baker has been described in countless articles as a leader of the "cool" school of jazz, meaning that he loved conventional Tin Pan Alley melodies. He played them in a softly modulated tone suggesting bittersweet angst, in an easy-going style bridging swing and bop.
Four new Baker CDs certainly offer a glimpse of that sound - but that is only a fraction of what they do reveal.
West Coast Live (Pacific Jazz) is an intriguing two-disc set of largely previously unreleased live recordings by Baker with the saxophonist Stan Getz from the '50s. Anyone interested in this fascinating mismatch of jazz greats should purchase this set and avoid Stan Meets Chet (Verve), a studio session marked by Baker's descent into a drug-induced fit of sour notes and phlegmatic phrasing. Note that "West Coast Live" still chronicles a mismatch. Baker favors short trumpet phrases, tart and probing commentaries upon old standards like "Yesterdays" and "All the Things You Are." Getz, on the other hand, executes long and sinewy, velvet-toned lines.
Their interactions are minimal; they basically keep out of each other's way. And yet their very lack of connection seems to bring out a measure of imaginative aggression in their exciting solos. They could be drivingly hard swingers, even with material as perennially and unseasonably corny as "Winter Wonderland." Their soaring energy on Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," a tune rarely heard in jazz today, is positively sensational.
Even better is Quartet: Russ Freeman and Chet Baker (Pacific Jazz), a studio session from 1956 featuring the young pianist Russ Freeman, an unusually inventive artist. A rousing tune like Freeman's "Hugo Hurwhey" shatters the image of Baker as a hornman who always wore his heart on his sleeve.
There is a real heft and assertive spark in his playing here. Helping the performance is the solid rhythm section of bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Mann (who also performs on three of the 20 selections on "West Coast Live") - far more adventuresome players than bassist Larry Carson and drummer Larry Bunker, who appear on the Getz collaboration on Pacific Jazz.
Baker's solo on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" is a sentimental tour de force, granted, but "Love Nest," the album's opening selection, has a Miles Davis-sounding drive that belies any wimpy reticence to boldly declaim.
Anyone seeking a one-disc sampler of a spectrum of Baker's touching art during the '50's (he recorded extensively until his death in 1988) would do well to get a copy of Jazz Profile: Chet Baker (Blue Note). Here is Baker the romantic vocalist, a honey-throated crooner on "I Get Along Without You Very Well." And here is Baker, the blues trumpeter, perfectly matched with alto saxophonist Art Pepper on "The Route." And there's Baker in an up-tempo mood on "Bockhanal."
Although attacked recently by no less a trumpeter than Wynton Marsalis, who claimed that Baker never completely mastered his instrument, no one in jazz history ever achieved such an intimate and complexly unsettling romantic sound.
Romanticism in jazz, as in any art, doesn't have to imply a sotto voce or sentimental wash. It can include raging fury, or confusion, or any number of complex feelings and thoughts. It is, more than anything else, an expression of an artist's yearning toward transcending the everyday conventional world. Like a Byron in poetry, or a Van Gogh in painting, Baker reached for a world beyond.