Chet Baker was a sometime singer, a good-looking matinee idol, a heroin addict, and one of the most creative trumpeters in jazz history.
Born in Oklahoma during 1929, he learned his craft as a member of The United States Army Band. His rise to prominence would come during the early 1950s when he worked with such artists as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Charlie Parker. His breakthrough as a commercially successful artist came was 1953-1957 while signed to the Pacific Jazz label. His tenure with Pacific Jazz had come to an end because of his heroin use.
The Riverside label then took a chance and bought his contact. Baker would only remain with the label for a couple of years, but in that time he was prolific, issuing seven albums. Due to his substance addiction, these releases vary in quality, but when he was on Baker was one of jazz music’s superstars.
Originally released in 1958, Chet Baker in New York was the artist’s second effort for the label. The title alone gives advance notice of the album’s style and approach.
Considered a proponent of the West Coast Jazz movement, for this album Baker traveled to New York, surrounding himself with East Coast musicians. Pianist Al Haig, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and sax player Johnny Griffin, on three of the six tracks, were all part of a more aggressive style of jazz. They would meet Baker somewhere in the middle, pushing him to create some of his career’s more interesting work.
This album has been reissued in CD form a number of times but now 24-bit remastering has cleaned the sound. Liner Notes by Doug Ramsey compliment the original notes, as they provide a quick synopsis of Baker’s career and a history of the album. The six-minute “Soft Winds” appears as a bonus track.
“Polka Dots,” an outstanding track and one of the best he ever recorded, captures the tension between the musicians’ styles just right. Baker’s soloing is equal to anything that was produced during this era. Another highlight is “Hotel 49,” which at just under ten minutes serves as a vehicle for extended improvisational solos. This is one of the tracks to feature saxophonist Johnny Griffin, and his interaction with Baker yield superior results from them having challenged each other.
Not all the material was successful, though, and I can’t help but think that Baker was just phoning it in at times. He spent the better part of two decades residing and performing in Europe, releasing albums on a string of smaller labels, until his untimely death at the age of 58. Chet Baker in New York nevertheless remains an interesting stop on his musical journey. It may not be the best or most consistent album he ever produced, but it certainly ranks among the more interesting ones.