Chet Baker's recording career divides neatly into two broad categories: the helpless romantic of the '50s and life's punching bag of the mid-'70s and '80s. By now you're certainly familiar with the charmer of the '50s—a West Coast natural trumpeter and singer whose look of youthful vulnerability and confusion was adapted by James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Elvis Presley. The roughed-up, bruised Baker of the latter period, however, is another matter. Now a new two-CD set—Chet Baker: The Sesjun Radio Shows—captures this fading era splendidly and goes far to restore Baker's image as a commanding player and improviser late in life.
A notorious heroin abuser, the trumpeter had no fixed address from 1978 until his death from a hotel balcony tumble in 1988. From the mid-1970s on, Baker spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands. On a long downward spiral, Baker tried to delay the inevitable by playing and living off the kindness of touring American musicians who employed him on European gigs.
By the early '80s, the tormented Baker seemed to have found a compassionate audience in the Dutch, particularly among those who loved jazz and appreciated his vital contribution. Rich in its own art history, Holland completely understood his demons, brooding depression and creative thrashing.
While in the Netherlands, Baker performed regularly on a live radio show called Tros Sesjun, which broadcast shows live from jazz clubs. Tros originally was an acronym for Televisie Radio Omroep Stichting, one of the public broadcasting arms in the Netherlands, while Sesjun is Dutch for "session." [Pictured: Nick Vollebregt's Jazzcafe in Laren, the Netherlands]
The shows often were aired from jazz clubs in Laren, a town 30 minutes from Amsterdam. The first set from these clubs typically was recorded professionally while the second went out over the air live to listeners.
The Sesjun Radio Shows CDs cover five different sets at three different clubs from 1976 to 1985. Both CDs, from start to finish, are astonishing. First, the sound is crystal clear and warm, as though recorded last week in a top-shelf studio. Second, the material was smartly chosen, ranging from Ray's Idea and Lady Bird to Strollin' and Lament. Third, Baker is uniformly excellent on all tracks—his trumpet playing cool and clean, and filled with wanderlust.
On these dates, Baker was recorded with five different groups—and all of them offer surprises. For example, Baker's working pianist Michel Graillier is exceptionally tender on the 1984 date from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The same goes for guitarist Philip Catherine and bassist Jean Louis Rassinfosse from Nick Vollebregt's Jazzcafe in Laren in 1985.
And then there's Baker with flutist Jacques Pelzer and pianist Harold Danko [pictured] in 1976, who frame the trumpeter with neo West Coast lines. This gentle support is evident on There Will Never Be Another You, I'm Old Fashioned and the glorious Chet's Theme.
Whatever you think of Baker's later period, the odds are you've misjudged him. But don't feel bad. Too much sub-par Baker material from this era has been released, complete with photos of a creased-face, morose artist on the verge of a calamity. As a result, the late-Baker image is now that of a failing artist hanging on by his fingertips. Nothing could be further from the truth here.
The Sesjun Radio Shows should go far to clearing up most people's perceptions of Baker's ability to perform, deliver and innovate during the last years of his messy life. Pretty, pretty stuff.
JazzWax tracks: Chet Baker: The Sesjun Radio Shows (Out of the Blue) was produced in the Netherlands, but the two-CD set is being distributed in the U.S. by Naxos, so it's reasonably priced. The set is available to sample and buy at iTunes or here. This is must-own material.