As the summer of 1955 began to dissolve into pre-autumn, Chet Baker made plans to head off to Europe to perform with a new rhythm section: Dick Twardzik (p), Jimmy Bond (b) and Peter Littman (d). Their first stop was in the Netherlands in mid-September followed by Germany and France. But a month into the tour, Twardzik died of a heroin overdose in Paris at age 24. Baker continued on, employing local pianists along the way.
He also became friendly with Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a German jazz journalist and author. In late 1955, Berendt invited Baker to Baden-Baden to meet and record with Kurt Edelhagen (above), who at the time led the Sudwestfunk (SWR) Radio Big Band.
While Baker was there, Edelhagen had an idea. What if Baker were to record a pair of duet sides with Caterina Valente, the Franco-Italian guitarist and jazz-pop singer. Baker agreed and, in March '56, they recorded I'll Remember April and Every Time We Say Goodbye. Just the two of them together. The results were mixed. While both musicians were more than capable, there seemed to be a disconnect. Valente was a Euro-pop singer at the time who connected with the listener's ears. Baker, by contrast, aimed for the heart. Edelhagen had been recording Valente since 1954 and would continue to do so until 1958. While with Edelhagen's big band, Baker recorded four tracks as a soloist.
After their tour, Baker, Bond and Littman returned to the U.S. in the early summer of '56. Baker and his bassist and drummer reunited with pianist Russ Freeman in Los Angeles and recorded. Over the next few years, Baker recorded a string of successful albums for Riverside. In the late summer of '59, Baker returned to Europe—first to Paris and then Germany, where he recorded five tracks in Cologne backed by Rolf-Hans Müller (above), who headed the SWF Dance Orchestra.
All of the music mentioned above was assembled a few years ago on I'll Remember April: Caterina Valente & Chet Baker (Blue Moon). The material with Baker is generally gorgeous. Accompanied by punchy band arrangements on the up-tempo songs and dreamy ones on the ballads, Baker wanders around on his trumpet with purpose. The Valente tracks with the band backing are less convincing, since she seemed overeager to imitate the approaches by American jazz-pop singers on the songs. However, Valente's intonation and tone were remarkable. Since all were recorded in English (Valente spoke and could sing in a dozen languages), one assumes they were geared for the American and British markets.
The music remains an audio snapshot of a moment in time, capturing two people on the same staircase, one heading up and the other down. Enormously talented as a dancer, singer and guitarist, Valente was striving to break into the American market while Baker was desperately trying to escape it. The pressures of the American market were made more onerous for Baker by his demons and chronic self-medication. Valente would succeed in her quest by the early 1960s, becoming a fixture on American TV variety shows. Baker, of course, would continue his downward spiral, first landing in an Italian prison and then returning home, where his brand of detached cool had become dated with the rise of folk and pop rock.
Chet Baker died in 1988.
JazzWax clips: Here's I'll Remember April with just Valente singing and playing guitar with Baker on trumpet...
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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