More than likely the 1959 Riverside album Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe, newly remastered for a Concord re-release, was an attempt to capitalize on the critical and commercial success Shelley Manne and Andre Previn had with the Broadway-jazz marriage in their 1956 version of My Fair Lady. Show tunes were popular and there was hardly a jazz musician around who wasn’t willing to take advantage of that popularity.
Baker, as James Rozzi explains in the booklet notes that accompany the disc, had been in something of a decline. His growing drug addiction had begun to take over and most critics felt his playing had suffered. He had just been released from four months in Riker’s Island for drug possession and he had lost his cabaret card so he could no longer perform in New York. Still, if this was not the musician at the height of his career, it is hard to tell from the music. His life may have been a mess, but the music is clean and accessible.
Joined by a stellar cast of musical accomplices, Baker does some elegant work with ballads from My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, and Paint Your Wagon, and he doesn’t do too badly with some of the uptempo tunes for that matter. When you’re working with the likes of Bill Evans on piano, Herbie Mann on flute, piccolo and tenor sax, Pepper Adams on baritone sax, as well as saxophonist Zoot Sims, cream rises to the top and Baker manages to rise to the occasion.
From the opening melody of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” where Adams and Sims share phrases with a laid-back Baker, it is clear that this is jazz at its listenable best. A waltz arrangement of “I Could Have Danced All Night” that opens with a sound that smacks of a calliope leading to a Mann piccolo solo follows. “The Heather on the Hill,” a tender ballad, begins with a little bass intro from Earl May before Baker takes on the melody and makes clear he still has some chops. Bob Corwin takes over for Evans on piano on this track. It is a beautiful tune, played with simple joy. Adams and Baker trade melody and accents at the beginning of “On the Street Where You Live.” Baker follows with a nicely grooved, medium-tempo solo.
“Almost Like Being in Love,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a masterful “I Talk to the Trees,” and the swinging version of “Show Me” round out the album. This last closes the album on a real upbeat note, although I must admit my own preference for the ballads. Baker works wonders in the simplicity of his laid-back style and the purity of his tone. If Baker was losing something to his drug habit, at least in this album, he managed to find it again.