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Chet Baker: Chet Baker Sings

Mark Barnett By

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Trumpeter Chet Baker's singing still provokes debate. Some love it, others wish he'd saved his singing for the shower. Here's a chance to make up your own mind by sampling some of the best singing of Baker's early career, when the voice was fresh, the ideas new.

Background

We live in partisan times, we're told. Republicans and Democrats, Sox fans and Yankee fans, sushi lovers and those who need their fish cooked. So why not toss trumpeter Chet Baker's singing into the mix? (For a little more background on Baker, see Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman in this "Getting Into Jazz" series.)

Those who don't like Baker's voice find it wispy, girlish, lacking in emotional heft. Some say that everything he sings sounds the same because there's no substance beneath the words, nothing to suggest that Baker actually cares about or even understands them. People (like me) who enjoy Baker's singing don't mind that he doesn't "deliver" a song in the usual sense, that he doesn't stamp it with a unique emotional postmark. To us, he's just using the words as a convenient way to deliver the melody—which to him is all that matters. To hear something similar, sample the singing of Joao or Astrud Gilberto.

The best introduction to Baker's voice is the 1954 album Chet Baker Sings, the first one devoted entirely to his singing. Like an earlier Chet Baker album in this "Getting Into Jazz series," it featured pianist/composer Russ Freeman. Some of the trumpet solos on this disc are very beautiful, and so the most interesting tracks are those where Baker has time to stretch out and play a few choruses in addition to vocalizing.

Even though I find it less satisfying overall, I couldn't resist including in this review a second album, It Could Happen to You, because it contains some examples of Baker's extraordinary and seldom-recorded scat singing. Lots of singers scat, stringing together syllables instead of words as they improvise. But Baker isn't just a singer, he's a horn player, and so when he scats he's actually humming his trumpet improvisations rather than playing them. Think of a jazz solo as having several stages. First the sequence of notes is formulated in the musician's brain. "This is what I'll play," the musician thinks, often just seconds before he/she plays it. But before we hear those notes, the musician must code them in the language of the instrument, a complex combination of mechanical skills (breath, fingering, etc.) which somehow keeps us one step away from the original idea. When Baker hums his improvisation, there's no instrument to act as middle man. The ideas flow directly from his mind to yours. Short of using an MRI machine, this is about as close as you'll get to seeing inside a jazz musician's brain.

Baker's scatting appears on four tracks of It Could Happen to You: Track 1, "Do It the Hard Way"; Track 4, "It Could Happen to You"; Track 8, "Dancing on the Ceiling"; and Track 12, "You Make Me Feel So Young."

Note that instead of these two albums, you can save money by buying the bargain-priced 3-disc set called Chet Baker Sings, the Complete 1953-62 Vocal Studio Recordings. It contains about 80 tracks, including the ones highlighted here. The sound quality is good, but the information about the recordings that's crammed into the packaging is sparse, and the sequencing of the tracks is confusing.

Chet Baker Sings

CD highlights

Track 11, "There Will Never Be Another You"

Written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon for the 1942 movie "Iceland," which immediately sank into the sea, this song, with its captivating melody and bittersweet lyrics, survived to become a durable jazz standard. Here it's a showcase for Baker and Freeman, possibly the best track on the disc. Baker gives us thoughtful, relaxed trumpet improvisation right from the start, going through the entire verse and part of the chorus. Then at 1:03, he demonstrates his never-changing approach to singing: silky-smooth, effortless, ultra-cool. From 1:48 to 2:22, listen carefully for some wonderful collaboration between Baker and Freeman as they play in tight counterpoint, like dancers who never step on each other's toes. You may have to hear this part a few times to pick it all up, but it's worth the effort.

Track 7, "But Not for Me"

Another jazz standard, this Gershwin tune was a two-time hit, sung by Ginger Rogers in the 1930 show "Girl Crazy" and then by Judy Garland in the 1943 movie version. Baker treats us to two long trumpet solos on this one. ­He opens with a semi-improvised version of the verse, then at 0:34 delivers his vocal. Listen especially at 1:23 for his beautifully constructed second solo, a showcase for his gift as an on-the-spot composer.

Track 6, "My Buddy"

This may be the most popular song you haven't heard. Written in 1922, it's been recorded by everyone from Gene Autry to Mario Lanza, and from Al Jolson to Stan Getz. Pay attention to the words. They may seem sappy on first listening, but after a while they'll grow on you. Baker opens with a muted solo that's nicely improvised yet captures enough of the original melody to familiarize you with the tune. He somehow seems to relate to "My Buddy," delivering the words with a feeling that's missing from a lot of what he sings. (Or am I imagining this?)

Track 8, "Time After Time"

A great jazz standard, this one by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, from still another cookie-cutter movie ("It Happened in Brooklyn") that disappeared without a trace. At 1:27, as Baker begins his trumpet solo, notice how he misses just slightly on the first note. This is the kind of thing that normally would be fixed afterwards in the studio, but leaving it in lends a nice, warm touch. It reminds us that these musicians are human, and what they produce can't be perfect. Jazz is "artisanal," to quote from the sign at the local bakery.

Track 12, "The Thrill is Gone"

Best known as an immensely popular R&B hit by B.B. King, this song is taken at dirge-pace by Baker. The track features some not-to-be-missed over-dubbing, in which Baker accompanies his own voice on trumpet.

Personnel: Chet Baker: Vocals, Trumpet; Russ Freeman: Piano, Celesta; Carson Smith:Bass; James Bond: Bass; Bob Neel: Drums; Lawrence Marable: Drums; Peter Littman: Drums;

Title: Chet Baker Sings | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Pacific Jazz Records

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