On the Banks of the Jabbok With Chet Baker

C. Michael Bailey By

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Ruddick captures these highs as well as the lows and puts them fully in perspective, giving the reader and potential listener a roadmap to Baker's often confused late-period discography. While there were many, many bad nights, the good ones do warrant attention. Ruddick keeps his promise addressing Baker's music with a selected annotated discography that fills out de Valk's nicely. Both authors rate the Baker releases using five stars, with Ruddick being much stingier than de Valk, giving them to only one release, Chet Baker In Tokyo (Evidence, 1987). Curiously, de Valk calls this Baker's best release but gives it only 4.5 stars. The two writers fall into order if one equates de Valks 5-star rated releases with Ruddick's 4.5 star discs.

Baker's musical legacy early in his career is fairly well settled with his recordings with Gerry Mulligan and the piano-less quartet, his own Chet Baker Quartet: Featuring Russ Freeman (Pacific Jazz, 1953) and his Barclay recordings with doomed pianist Dick Twardzik noted as historic. Both authors agree on the importance of Baker's drummerless trios of the mid-1980s, with guitarist Philip Catherine on Chet' Choice (Criss Cross, 1985) and pianist Michel Graillier on Candy (Sonet, 1985), and Baker's final performance with the NDR-Big Band and Radio Orchestra Hannover, The Last Great Concert (Enja, 1988).

But I still lacked perspective regarding Baker. I have owned and listened to a pile of his music, often viewing him as a radioactive specter emitting musical waves toxic with the rest of his story. His trumpet playing was often pinched and tentative, and his singing was an acquired taste if there ever was one. But for all of these reservations, Baker's music has always remained compelling to me. Completely untaught and unable to read music, Baker had no business playing anything as well as he did, let alone jazz. But, this same could be said of other jazz autodidacts like Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, and Buddy Rich. In the end, Chet Baker was Chet Baker and no one else. How many artists can boast this?

Ruddick channels musician and writer Mike Zwerin—most notable as trombonist in Miles Davis' nonet on The Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records, 1957). From a 1983 article, Zwerin wrote:

"You do not feel like shouting 'Yeah,' after a Chet Baker solo. All that tenderness, turmoil and pain has driven you too far inside. He reaches that same part of us as the late Beethoven string quartet, a spiritual hole where music becomes religion..."

..."where music becomes religion."

It is in this dimension that Baker's enigmatic playing and singing gains purchase, just as Billie Holiday's did on Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958) and Last Recordings (MGM, 1959), and Lester Young on Lester Young in Washington D.C., 1956 (OJC. 1956). It is here where Baker joins Mozart where the music transforms from mathematics to the sublime mystic in that composer's Requiem's unfinished Lacrimosa:

Lacrimosa dies ilia
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.

Mournful that day
When from the dust shall rise
Guilty man to be judged.

Photo Credits

Page 1: Guy Foncke
Page 2: Michel Verreckt
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