In the early 1950s, the rural Oklahoman Chet Baker established prominent connections in the jazz world; gigs with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz led to his first recordings. The trappings of both musicians' circles were dusted with heroin and Baker's career breaks coincided with his introduction to the disease that would stifle his musical development and kill him in thirty-something years. The Legendary Riverside Albums represents an output that some felt was Baker's best. It's an assessment that's debatable, as this box set demonstrates. The five-LP collection has been meticulously remastered from the original Riverside tapes by Craft Recordings
Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You (1958) is the first LP in the vinyl collection. The trumpeter wrote little of his own material and those few compositions were later in his career. On this album of familiar standards, Baker puts his cool jazz stamp on show tunes from the likes of Rodgers & Hart, Jerome Kern, Jimmy Van Heusen, George Gershwin and others. Baker's vocals are an acquired taste. His meager, androgynous voice takes on more personality with some unexpecting, and uninspiring, scat singing. Drummer Philly Joe Jones appears on seven of ten tracks and pianist Kenny Drew is on board throughout. The second album, Chet Baker In New York (1959), was actually the first of Baker's that Riverside recorded. No vocals here but plenty of the early Miles Davis stylings that had first inspired Baker in the 1940s. Jones is again on drums and joined by bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Al Haig, and Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, all remarkable backup soloists. The supporting players are key here as much of Baker's playing on In New York is lackluster.
Like the first two discs in the Riverside box, Chet was recording in 1958. Jones and Chambers return to an all-star cast but even with Bill Evans, Pepper Adams, Herbie Mann, and Kenny Burrell on hand, Chet falls flat. The languid pacing of a piece like "Alone Together" is appealing but the enduring lack of energy wears as even a swing tunes such as "How High The Moon" is reduced to a slow crawl. Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner And Loewe (1959) adds Zoot Sims on alto and tenor saxophones and Earl May takes over on bass. May had worked with Davis, Lester Young, and John Coltrane and went on to Broadway musicals in the 1980s. Again, Baker blows hot and cold, mostly the latter, leaving most highlights to Evans.
The final LP, Outtakes & Alternates, includes two tracks left off the Riverside collection. The alternate takes do not provide fresh perspectives as much as small tweaks. Baker rarely embraced the unexpected in his music and his innocuous arrangements speak to a talented artist with a low bar for ambition. From 1978 until he died in 1988, Baker remained in Europe, infrequently returning to the U.S. to play. Though it was a resurgence in his recording output, the results were spotty. A reconstructed jawthe result of a physical beatingand his unabated drug and alcohol abuse had continued to denigrate Baker's ability to play with command. But there were moments in this decade that were reminders of his talent and potential. In particular, the more challenging Peace (Enja, 1982) and Cool Cat (Timeless, 1989), recorded at the end of 1986 and released shortly after his death. Looking for growth from the Riverside years to Baker's later career is difficult given all the peripheral issues that plagued the trumpeter, but those matters hardly obscure that he evolved little in his career. The real value in this collection comes from the superb work of Evans, Chambers, Adams, et al. This box set benefits from audiophile quality, but is for die-hard Baker fans with deep pockets.
It Could Happen To You: Side A: Do It The Hard Way; I’m Old Fashioned; You’re Driving Me Crazy; It Could Happen To You; My Heart Stood Still; Side B: The More I See You; Everything Happens To Me; Dancing On The Ceiling; How Long Has This Been Going On?; Old Devil Moon.
In New York: Side A: Fair Weather; Polka Dots And Moonbeams; Hotel 49; Side B: Solar; Blue Thoughts; When Lights Are Low.
Chet: Side A: Alone Together; How High The Moon; It Never Entered My Mind; ’Tis Autumn; Side B: If You Could See Me Now; September Song; You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To; Time On My Hands; You And The Night And The Music.
Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe: Side A: I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face; I Could Have Danced All Night; The Heather On The Hill; On The Street Where You Live; Side B: Almost Like Being In Love; Thank Heaven For Little Girls; I Talk To The Trees; Show Me.
Outtakes & Alternates: Side A: While My Lady Sleeps (Take 10); You Make Me Feel So Young (Take 5); The More I See You (Take 8, Alternate); Everything Happens To Me (Take 2, Alternate); Side B: Soft Winds; Early Morning Mood.
It Could Happen To You: George Morrow: bass (A1, A2, A5, B2, B3); Sam Jones: bass (A3, A4, B1, B4, B5); Philly Joe Jones: drums (A1, A2, A5, B1, B2, B3, B5); Dannie Richmond: drums (A3, A4, B4); Kenny Drew: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet, vocals.
In New York: Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums; Al Haig: piano; Johnny Griffin: tenor saxophone (1, 3, 5); Chet Baker: trumpet.
Chet: Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums (A4, B4, B5); Connie Kay: drums (A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3); Herbie Mann: flute; Kenny Burrell: guitar (A3, B2); Bill Evans: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet.
Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe: Zoot Sims: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Earl May: bass; Clifford Jarvis: drums; Herbie Mann: flute, tenor saxophone (B1); Bill Evans: piano (A1, B2 to B4); Bob Corwin: piano (A2, A3, A4, B1); Chet Baker: trumpet.
Outtakes & Alternates: Carson Smith: bass; Bob Neel: drums; Russ Freeman: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet, vocals (A1); George Morrow: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums; Kenny Drew: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet (A2, A3, A4); Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums; Al Haig: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet (B1); Pepper Adams: baritone saxophone; Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums; Herbie Mann: flute; Bill Evans: piano; Chet Baker: trumpet (B2).