Face of an angel, soul of a demon. This is the first time that Baker's Riverside recordings have been anthologised, and they prove to be perhaps the most consistent set of recordings of his career.By Dean Rudland
It's the 1950s and rebellious film stars are a bit of a must. Mean and moody, like James Dean or Marlon Brando. It gets both the boys and the girls interested, mostly, but not always for different reasons. It is in this context that Chet Baker first came to fame with a series of records on Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz label. And all it takes is a look at the cover of our new CD to see how it would have worked.
But Baker had serious credentials. He had first come to the jazz world's attention when he played with Charlie Parker on one of his West Coast sojourns in 1952. When Parker headed back East he was heard to say 'you better look out, there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up' to people such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. The next few years saw him build up a reputation as a serious player, first with Gerry Mulligan and then out front as the leader of his own group. He rapidly became a star, aided by those good looks, and his colour, which allowed him into the homes of mainstream America.
It was at this point that problems started to occur. Critics whispered that he was only where he was because he wasn't black and worse, that he really wasn't that talented. There was a definite level of jealousy engendered by his success from his musical peers. And then there were the drugs. By the mid 50s he was addicted to heroin and he began what was a 30 year habit that made him notoriously unreliable and slowly pulled his career apart.
Many reckon that his finest recordings were those made for Pacific in the first flow of fame, and there were a great many fine recordings, including his definitive vocal take on My Funny Valentine. However we're going to put forward an alternative case. While those early recordings often hit highs that were truly amazing, Bock was looking to milk his star attraction and recorded Chet far too often. By 1958 Chet had run out from the West Coast and was living in New York, where he started recording for Riverside.
Listening to these recordings I think that you can see the most consistent set of recordings that Chet recorded, both vocally and instrumentally. Added to the four albums he recorded in New York we have taken four tracks for the beautiful Italian recorded album With 50 Italian Strings, that Riverside released after Chet had left the USA for Europe in late 1959.
If you like Chet's singing the vocal cuts on this compilation are manna from heaven. His voice is delicate and romantic, and his take on the standards Do It The Hard Way, Deep In A Dream, and The Song Is You are classics. However it is the instrumental tracks that really are a revelation. Chet holds his own against some of the heaviest hitters of the New York hard-bop scene. And despite many snide comments about his playing ability, he is very much their equal.
So there we go, the much misunderstood Chet Baker, playing the best music of his career, just as his life was starting to come apart.