With Strings. I have been listening to a several recordings of Jazz artists performing with a string section, including: Clifford Brown With Strings (Emarcy 814 642), Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve 314 523), Art Pepper’s Winter Moon (OJC 677), Wynton Marsalis’ Midnight Blues: Standard Time Volume 5 (Columbia 68921), and most recently, Chet Baker and Strings (Columbia Legacy 65562). I am enamored with all of these discs. Some of them have stood the test of time, some have not. They are all necessary listening. So, what about Chet Baker and Strings ?
Dry Ice Cool. In the early 1950s, an Easterly wind blew the dust of Cool Jazz from Miles Davis’ trumpet to the West Coast, pollinating a fertile collection of musicians who were to perfect the movement Miles started in that same way that Mozart perfected the musical transitions Haydn had initiated. Chet Baker was one student in that school of musicians who defined West Coast Cool Jazz. He was part of the famous Gerry Mulligan piano-less quartet experiment, he ?comped with Charlie Parker, he defined Cool Jazz vocals. It is not so much that Baker was an exceptional trumpeter and singer, although he was certainly technically proficient. No, Chet Baker had a simple, melodic blowing and vocal style that made him immediately recognizable, much in the same way that Neil Young’s guitar playing and vocals are unmistakable in rock music.
Chet Baker, along with alto player Art Pepper, defined white hipster cool. Both were brilliant, addicted, and doomed. Their lives, even more than Charlie Parker’s, are the stuff of the American Romantic Myth, young, brilliant, dark, and dissolute. The music they made was sublime in every way. Quoting Michael Cuscuna’s comments regarding Grant Green and Sonny Clark applies equally to Baker and Pepper, «Despite their illness, these men were able to produce beautiful music ? which is not to glamorize addiction, but only to underscore how much even greater music was lost to its deadly lure.»
Period Performance. Chet Baker and Strings has more in common with the previously mentioned Parker and Brown recordings than the Pepper and Marsalis discs. The former recordings are historic period pieces, glimpses into another era of jazz performance and recording. That IS to say that they sound somewhat dated, but NOT to say that these are bad recordings by any means. The latter discs were recorded between 25 and 40 years later and their fidelity reflects that fact. Chet Baker and Strings was remastered for re-release in the Columbia Legacy Series. The sound is pretty good but not great.
But these are petty observations for a collection of music so satisfying. Baker’s trumpet has an almost wounded midrange tone that one can identify a mile away. He is joined by a veritable who’s who of West Coast jazz: tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Jack Montrose (also arranger), altoist Bud Shank, pianist Russ Freeman, bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer Shelly Manne. The arrangements were provided by West Coast talent Marty Paich (responsible for the superb Art Pepper + 11 a few years later), John Mandel, and Shorty Rogers. This entire affair is a cool jazz dream.
The Songs. The pieces on this disc are almost made beside the point by the combination of Baker’s dry tone, the svelte arrangements, and the sometimes lush, sometimes hot accompaniment. They act as almost mere vehicles for a group of artists perfecting what started in Gil Evan’s apartment in 1948. There are surprises, sparkles of genius: the 4/4 break in «Love Walked In», the sheer innocence of «What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,» the counterpoint of «A Little Duet for Zoot and Chet.»
Thankfully, Chet does not sing on this disc. His voice is very much an acquired taste, and one I like very much, but only in small doses. But all of the romance that is Chet Baker drifts out of that untrained trumpet. And this is very much in evidence on this re-issue.