Chet Baker ‘Three Albums Plus’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

Eulogised and lambasted in equal measure, the ever photogenic Chet Baker led both a vigorous and tragic life (especially the effect that drug addiction had upon him), but the music here focuses on a relatively short period between 1958 and 1962 when the quality of the music was still consistently high. In fact he extended his repertoire well beyond the stereotypical image of the west coast ‘cool school’ musician, which was always a limiting description of Baker, and indeed of many who practiced their trade on the American west coast. The first CD starts off with Chet on the other side of the United States, in New York and presents an altogether different persona, with Baker playing with the ‘hot’ musicians of the Big Apple. He is in fine form, surrounded by a stellar group of musicians including tenorist Johnny Griffin, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and pianist Al Haig. A selection of standards are interpreted with panache and of these ‘Polka dots and moonbeams’ stands out, as does a take on Miles’ ‘Solar’, while there is great subtlety in the reading of ‘When lights are low’. A second album from New York, ‘Chet’, is included and divided over the two CD’s, with a repetition of bass and drummer added to by no less than Bill Evans on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Herbie Mann on flute and Pepper Adams on baritone saxophone. The Great American songbook is the pretext for some scintillating music of which ‘How high the moon’, ‘If you could see me know’, and ‘You, the night and the music’ are stand out versions. The second CD focuses attention away from America and onto Chet’s recordings made in Italy. They feature an array of top European musicians and, ‘Chet is back’, is a sumptuous album recorded in Rome in 1962, with Belgians René Thomas and Bobby Jaspar both present. A real personal favourite of this writer is pianist Amedeo Tommasi’s superb composition, ‘Ballata in forma di blues’, that here takes on a wonderful modal interpretation. Almost as strong are an uptempo take on Parker’s, ‘Barbados’, and some moody balladry work on, ‘These foolish eyes’, and, ‘Over the rainbow’. Rounding off the Italian recordings are three bonus cuts from Rome between 1959 and 1962 with an all-Italian musician accompaniment. Chet Baker recorded film soundtrack music also when in Italy that has recently been re-issued.

English language liner notes to all three albums provide useful historical context to the recordings.

Tim Stenhouse