With his striking good looks, withdrawn stage presence, and reserved improvisational approach, trumpeter Chet Baker embodied everything that was "cool about jazz in the 1950s. He was peerless when it came to playing ballads, using simplistic phrasing and a tone that was at once unassuming, fragile, stirring, and sexy.
His experience as a singer undoubtedly influenced his interpreting the American popular songbook. By choosing not to use excessive embellishments the focus is shifted back to melody and away from ornamentation. Baker had an unrivaled ability to draw the essence out of any song and communicate meaning without words.
Chet (Riverside, 1959) was recorded near the beginning of his heroin addiction, so inconsistency can be anticipated. When playing in the middle register of his trumpet, Baker's tone is warm, inviting, and sensuous. On the rare occasions he exceeds his comfortable range, however, his sound weakens and his flexibility suffers. Still, like a master painter with a single brush and one color, Baker has the ability to make magic out of his limited resources. Throughout the entire record, his phrasing lags behind the beat and his airy attacks paint an image of him dragging his feet to catch up with his band mates. This sluggishness is very effective, lulling listeners into a hazy, dream-like state. His use of space creates mesmerizing moments of suspenseful and intense silences.
Baker's cast of sidemen is superb. Pianist Bill Evans, though entirely too low in the mix throughout, uses sparsely placed and colorfully voiced chords that add a deceptive harmonic depth while remaining empathetic to Baker's vulnerability. Flutist Herbie Mann, given the challenging duty of arranging for a trumpet/flute/baritone sax frontline at these dreadfully slow tempos, succeeds in penning some skeletal sketches which encourage the less-is-more approach that dominates the album. Pepper Adams' edgy baritone adds an East Coast sensibility along with Paul Chambers' heavy, resonant bass. Guitarist Kenny Burrell replaces Evans on two tracks and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Connie Kay are sensitive and supportive.
The tunes on Chet are all down-tempo ballads. Often referred to as the "junkie beat," they range from a bedroom tiptoe, to an unhurried stroll, to a stoned stumble through a moonlit alley. Four out of the eight musicians on the record were addicts, making it quite impressive that tempos this slow could be pulled off with such precision. Evans' spare introduction on "Alone Together instantly sets an eerie mood; Baker's languid solo is haunting and ghostly. "It Never Entered My Mind, one of the highlights of the album, finds Baker's lonely sound truly expressing the lyrics' yearning for a lost love. Again paying keen attention to lyrics and mood, Baker's interpretation of "Time on My Hands is comparatively upbeat. He utilizes less space and more twisting, complicated runs, yet still remaining thoughtful and romantically poetic.
In Baker's uneven discography, Chet stands out as one of the trumpeter's classic records.
Personnel: Chet Baker: trumpet; Herbie Mann: flute; Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Kenny Burrell: guitar; Bill Evans: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Connie Kay: drums; Philly Joe Jones: drums.