By 1964, Chet Baker was damaged goods. The '50s had been a series of ego flights and emotional letdowns for the trumpeter. The vulnerable and naturally pretty look he had coolly projected at the start of the decade was lifted by Hollywood in the form of James Dean and Montgomery Clift. By 1958, Baker's sensitive-victim look was out, replaced by tough guys like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster. Even jazz on the West Coast had lifted much of his moody, melodic style. Baker's temperament and disposition weren't helped by his drug addiction in the early '50s, which set Baker on a life-long crash course.
In late 1959 and 1960, Baker toured Italy and the rest of Europe, a trip that once again fired-up his ego. But his new-found fame and movie stardom led to cockiness and, eventually, to an arrest for drug smuggling and forgery. The result was two years in an Italian prison (he had been sentenced to three).
Upon his release in 1962, Baker began touring Europe again, recording extensively in Italy. After exhausting all commercial possibilities there and likely eager to resume his drug habit without having to wheedle pills in Europe and risk a longer prison stretch, Baker returned to the U.S. in 1964, winding up first in New York.
Upon his return, Baker recorded The Most Important Jazz Album of 1964-65 for Colpix, his first U.S. studio date in five years. On the session, Baker played flugelhorn and sang on two tracks. The results were sublime. He was joined on the date by Phil Urso (ts,cl), Hal Galper (p), Jymie Merritt (b) and Charlie Rice (d). Many of the arrangements were by Tadd Dameron and Jimmy Mundy.
What makes this recording special is Baker's lyricism and musical maturity on pure jazz songs. His solos, phrasing and intonation are all deeply profound, while his ideas are clear and mellow. How he managed to retain such beauty and clarity given his reckless self-abuse is baffling.
By taking on serious works like Dameron's [pictured above] Soultrane, Tadd's Delight, Gnid, Mating Call and Whatever Possessed Me, Baker displays enormous tenderness and sensitivity for the material. He even delivers a vocal on Walkin'—lyrics by Quincy Jones:
Love is quite the joker
He likes to have his fun
He sets you down in clover
Till he wins you over
Then suddlenly leaves you flat
Just like that, here's your hat
For some reason, Phil Urso [pictured above] never received the proper amount of credit for being a perfect musical foil for Baker's sound. Urso could swing smartly, and his lines and tone were gritty, hefty and tasteful. Unfortunately, the pair also were heroin-mates, visiting 157th St. in Harlem together often to score.
Pianist Galper is another forgotten artist of great merit, contributing two originals—Retsim B. (for Baker, not Billy Eckstine) and Margarine. On Whatever Possessed Me, we hear Urso play clarinet while Baker sings. Positively gorgeous.
Jimmy Mundy, in addition to arranging Gnid and Soultrane also scored Duke Jordan's Flight to Jordan and Ann, Wonderful One.
When this album was recorded in May 1964, Baker was an emotional, drug-dependent wreck, already at the start of his long decline of no return. But during the months that preceded this session, his playing was among his finest jazz works from a patient, expressive standpoint.
There really isn't a bad note or throwaway line on his 1964 album, and Baker's tone is pure honey. How this was possible given his emotional state will always remain one of life's great mysteries.
JazzWax notes: James Gavin's distinct and haunting biography of Chet Baker, Deep in a Dream, can be found here.
My interview with Phil Urso's brother, Joe, can be found here.
Jazzwax clip: Here's Chet Baker playing Tadd's Delight. Dig Phil Urso's Coltrane-esque solo, setting up Baker's tender reading...