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Music Review: Chet Baker – The Very Best of Chet Baker

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Jazz lovers who care enough to send the very best will want to take a look at some of the albums in Concord Music Group’s new The Very Best of… series. With names like Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Chet Baker, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be plenty of music to warm the cockles of even the coldest heart.

Take The Very Best of Chet Baker, for example. Though haunted by heroin addiction for much of his life, Baker’s trumpet artistry was rarely in question, and the 14 tracks on this album make it abundantly clear that this is a musician who can blow with the best of them. The songs are culled from eight albums originally recorded on four eminent labels—Fantasy, Riverside, Jazzland, and Prestige. The earliest come from 1952 and they run through the decade including some of the work he did in Italy, a country more tolerant of his indiscretions than the U.S. There are also a couple of tracks from albums he did in 1965. While this only represents a tiny part of Baker’s discography, it does include examples of work that belongs with the very best.

The album begins with two cuts from the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, recorded when the young Baker was first beginning to make a name for himself. Opening with a live recording of “My Funny Valentine,” a song that for many has become identified with the trumpeter, it begins on a high note. Baker’s restrained lyrical approach to the standard is magical. This is followed by the Mulligan standby, “Moonlight in Vermont,” and although, for my money, nothing can substitute for the version recorded with Bob Brookmeyer on the valve trombone on the Paris Concert album, this 1953 recording is a nice foreshadowing.

Three Baker vocals recorded for the 1958 It Could Happen to You album follow: “Do It the Hard Way,” “My Heart Stood Still,” and a really exciting take on “That Old Devil Moon.” Baker’s style is something of a hybrid of Sinatra crooning with maybe touch of Mel Tormé. A fourth vocal, “The Song is You,” comes from the 1959 Jazzland disc, Chet Baker with Fifty Italian Strings. While I’m not sure I wouldn’t have preferred four more instrumentals, Baker’s vocals were much lauded at the time and stand up well.

Some of the instrumental highlights, on an album already filled with highlights, include a swinging recording of Benny Golson’s “Fair Weather” (with Johnny Griffin on tenor sax), as well as “Look For the Silver Lining,” recorded in Italy on the Milan album. Two cuts from Chet, “If You Could See Me Now” and “How High the Moon” feature a powerhouse ensemble: Bill Evans on piano, Pepper Adams on baritone sax, Herbie Mann on flute, Paul Chambers on bass, and drummer Connie Kay. There is another powerful crew on the ’59 recording of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Baker shines. The tracks from 1965 include a jumping “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and “When You’re Gone” made for Prestige and demonstrating that despite questions about his addiction, Baker could still deliver the goods. Here he works with tenor sax player George Coleman and Kirk Lightsey on piano. Herman Wright on bass and Roy Brooks on drums round out the rhythm section.

There may be better examples of Baker’s work, but what you’ve got collected here is plenty good enough to be included in any discussion of the very best.

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