Graded on a Curve:
Chet Baker Trio,
Live in Paris

Although he is not universally beloved, the trumpeter and occasional vocalist Chet Baker is one of the truly iconic artists in the history of jazz. Frequently spoken of as a tragic figure, and as a man who squandered his talent, his early career highs tend to dominate the discussion of his work. This isn’t an unusual circumstance in jazz terms, but it’s especially the case with Baker’s discography, making the release of Live in Paris by the Chet Baker Trio an event worth celebrating. Consisting of live radio broadcasts from 1983-’84 recorded in stereo, the high quality of the performances gets matched with Elemental Records’ detailed presentation. The 3LP/2CD is out now.

Chet Baker’s iconic stature derives in part from his movie star good looks, a feature that record labels in the 1950s, namely Pacific Jazz, Riverside, and Prestige, showed no hesitation in exploiting, though to be fair, not every album with Baker’s name on it from back then sought to tap into his pinup-heartthrob allure. But the LP sleeves that chose to spotlight the suaveness did so unashamedly (please scope out (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You from ’58 on Riverside for evidence), so that he became a target of disdain for many hardcore jazz aficionados.

It wasn’t just the shameless commercialism. That Baker was a Caucasian who embodied (indeed, was integral to establishing) the Cool West Coast style was already something of a strike against him (no matter that Baker could play bop; that he largely chose not was the problem). Throw in a drug habit (the trumpeter’s undoing, at least until he started getting his life back on track in the 1970s) and that he had the audacity to sing, and did so idiosyncratically, resulted in an unconscionable creative trajectory.

In the hard-bop worshipping neo-trad 1980s, Baker’s rep was at something of a low point, even as he was still capable of playing at a high level. The trumpeters du jour were Dizzy Gillespie (of course), pre-fusion Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd, etc. By comparison, Baker was sometimes denigrated as a has-been, or as a man who wasted his advantages by striving to achieve the jazz junky cliché, evaluations harsh but not necessarily unfair; it’s when he was dismissed as nothing more than a jazz Fabian that the derision went overboard.

The flat fact was that Baker was an ace on the trumpet, an assessment backed up by how he spent so much of the ’80s on stages in Europe, where he was far more appreciated. From the music to the booklet’s observations and remembrances (courtesy of Live in Paris’ producer Zev Feldman, jazz writer Ashley Khan, contributing musicians Riccardo Del Fra, Dominique Lemerle and others), this collection delivers extended reinforcement of Baker’s skills during this period, the beauty and verve of the performances deepened by the palpable sense that it’s just another night on the bandstand.

The set features Baker and his frequent pianist Michel Graillier with two bassists, Dominique Lemerle for an open-air gig at Esplanade De La Defence on July 17, 1983 (four selections filling sides one and two), and Riccardo Del Fra for a show at Le Petit Opportun on February 7, 1984 (seven pieces spread across albums two and three).

Graillier and Del Fra played frequently with Baker, including on three studio albums from the same era, with Mr. B, issued in 1983 by the Timeless label, held in particular high regard. The level of familiarity is immediately felt in the opener “Thee Will Never Be Another You,” as Baker sings and scats a tune he first recorded in 1954 on the Pacific Jazz album Chet Baker Sings, notably Baker’s vocal debut.

At over 14 minutes, this version is a significant expansion on Sings’ three minute reading, the playing exquisite but with collective assurance that heightens the air of the casual. Two more songs are sung, “But Not For Me,” which was also introduced on the ’54 Sings, and “Just Friends” from ’55’s Chet Baker Sings and Plays, also on Pacific Jazz.

Baker revisits these songs as part of a deeper focus on standards throughout Live in Paris, though the group with Del Fra also dives into Hank Mobley’s “Funk in Deep Freeze” and Horace Silver’s “Strollin’,” as Del Fra is a noticeably more forceful player when compared to Lemerle. And the preponderance of standards fits these drummer-less lineups extremely well.

Without a drummer is how Baker preferred it (record labels didn’t always agree), which Baker’s level of engagement reflects here, as he maintains a high level of complexity amongst the romanticism. This was frankly not always the case with the trumpeter as he did record a whole lot in the ’80s (bills, those aforementioned habits), and was often paired with players (many of them drummers) of insufficient sensitivity.

Sometimes, Baker just wasn’t up to the task himself. Hey, we all have our good days and bad. But the two documented on Live in Paris were amongst Baker’s late-in-life best. They validate the maxim “never count an artist out.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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