May 28, 2024

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CD & Vinyl review: Chet Baker – Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions in Holland – 2023: Video, CD cover

On previously unheard 1979 recordings for Dutch radio, impulsive improvisations by the trumpeter-vocalist are expressed with his inimitable featherlight phrasing.

Chet Baker’s audiences towards the end of his life were as much interested in the drama of his story as his music. Chet left so much music, not all of it good. His itinerant progress through Europe yielded so many bootlegs, bootlegs of varying qualities. Baker was also prolific in the studio during this time, having recorded eleven records in 1979 and ten more the following year. Zev Feldman who specialises in searching out lost recordings could be occupied for years in the quest for Chet’s work.

The good news is that Feldman has found two remarkable sessions. Start with ‘Blue Gilles’. The opening bars are pure acapella Baker: thoughtful beautiful. He plays solo and compels you to listen, to savour his thoughts, enjoying his long line, listening to the intake of breath. Baker plays to the individual listener.

In 1988, the Vogue photographer and occasional film-maker Bruce Weber made Let’s Get Lost, a lingeringly homoerotic but revealing documentary homage to “the white Miles”, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird and Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (also released in the jazz-fashionable late 80s), it was a serious film about the music itself, even if the movie business’s conviction that improvisational genius, addiction and mental turmoil were natural bedfellows wasn’t far away.

This is the distilled essence of jazz. Producer Edwin Rutten describes in the liner notes how he suggested the shape of the piece to Baker, opening with a cadenza. He also describes the disappointment that he felt when Baker chose to finish the piece with a more conservative ending.

The production, as with most Zev Feldman albums, is exemplary. there are numerous interviews all commenting on different aspects of Chet’s life and playing. Enrico Rava probably gets to the heart of Baker. ‘What made him special for me was the feeling that for him, every note was the last one; the feeling that he was really speaking directly from his soul, directly from his brain.

Baker’s life was tailor-made for that treacherous storyboard: a James Dean-like doomed youth and Charlie Parker sideman in the 1950s; the star of the era’s chamber-jazzy cool school movement whose heroin habit brought jail terms, domestic strife, a playing life of one-night stands and early death at 58. Yet through it all, Baker kept conjuring beautiful jazz, particularly in Europe.

The previously unreleased Blue Room joins together two 1979 studio sessions for Dutch radio, with classy trios led by pianists Phil Markowitz and the late Frans Elsen. The Latin-swaying Beautiful Black Eyes introduces Baker’s inimitable trumpet sound, blown as if he’s barely exhaling, the phrasing a mix of drowsy musing and impulsive flurries that hardly jolt his hypnotically flatlining dynamics.

Three of Baker’s haunting stoned-chorister vocals develop as whispery wordless-scat improvisations as capricious as his horn-playing, and the uptempo bebop sprints on The Best Thing for You, Miles Davis’s Down and the ageless Old Devil Moon are shapely, long-lined improvisations that barely need a rhythm section. The mood is mostly low key, and the everybody-solos-in-turn ensemble format might be too formulaic for some, but Blue Room is a fascinating snapshot of a unique improvising artist’s muse. Illuminating, savvy liner notes from fellow players, producers and friends are a big bonus.

There was no phrasing, no routine. It was always something different. It was pure beauty, all of his phrases. Beautiful, beautiful phrases all the time. And it was moving. It spoke directly to my soul ……. Chet just built little episodes of beauty.’.

‘Nardis’ allows the rhythm to shine. Baker uses his restricted range to great effect. Baker never cultivated the harsh brass sound popular with most trumpeters. Baker favours a misty smoky sound, lyrical, barely suppressed melancholy. Bass players were important to Baker at this stage of his life.

Their soft percussive playing was all that was really needed. Rassinfosse is very fine with a secure decisive line and a warm springy sound.

Irving Berlin’s ‘The Best Thing For You’ is given an injection of energy with Phil Markowitz enjoying the opportunity to unfurl his sleek improvisations.

Jean Louis Rassinfosse and Charles Rice add to the vitality and drive. ‘Beautiful Black Eyes’ plays as a bossa nova. When the rhythmic tension increases, Baker tightens his grip maintaining his cool stance.

Jeroen de Valk, Chet’s biographer, suggests that the lack of available drugs gave Baker a lucidity and control but probably caused Baker anguish however it produced great jazz art. Superb sessions in Tokyo and London lend some truth to that view.

Baker does sing on three of the pieces. not everyone’s thrills to the vocals and the maudlin victim infused delivery. Baker tries to integrate the phrasing with his playing but I suspect that I will skip the tracks in the future.

The quality of the recording and remastering is remarkable and it enables the subtleties and beauty of Baker’s soft tone and especially the fluidity and richness of Rassinfosse’s bass.

CD-1:

01. Beautiful Black Eyes (09:15)
02. Oh, You Crazy Moon (10:04)
03. The Best Thing For You (06:12)
04. Blue Room (16:12)
05. Down (07:22)

CD-2:

01. Blue Gilles (10:54)
02. Nardis (08:39)
03. Candy (05:41)
04. Lucious (06:57)
05. My Ideal (05:36)
06. Old Devil Moon (05:14)

Chet Baker – trumpet, vocals
Phil Markowitz – piano
Jean-Louis Rassinfosse – bass
Charles Rice – drums
Frans Elsen – piano
Victor Kaihutu – bass
Eric Ineke – drums

Chet Baker - Blue Room: The 1979 Vara Studio Sessions In Holland [2 CD] - Amazon.com Music

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