I still remember the first time I heard a Chet Baker LP. One of my college roommates put a jazz record on the turntable in our house. As a newcomer to jazz, I at least knew it was some trumpet player. A couple tunes in, I heard a vocalist.
"Who's the singer," I asked, fully expecting to hear the name of a female vocalist. "That's Chet Baker, the trumpet player," I was told.
While that isn't the way you would expect to discover a jazz trumpet player, it may be the way Chet Baker's name became known to any number of people who weren't familiar with his work in the 1950s and 1960s. And while Riverside Profiles: Chet Baker, a collection of his recordings for the Riverside label in 1958 and 1959, gives listeners a chance to hear Baker sing, it puts most of its focus on his trumpet playing.
Baker was one of the artists who helped create what would be called "West Coast jazz." That subgenre tended to incorporate elements of swing with the growing "cool school" of jazz that had its roots in bebop. With sunglasses, good looks and his swept back hair, Baker was the epitome of cool. More important, not only did he have the chops to play the bop elements that still appeared in the cool school, he had the ability to provide a lyrical, laid back style with his trumpet.
The former is represented on Riverside Profiles: Chet Baker by "Fair Weather," originally released on 1958's Chet Baker in New York. It reflects the somewhat harder and more bop-oriented East Coast sound. That is due in part to the presence of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, members of the Miles Davis Quintet. Yet while "Fair Weather" may not be closer to the East Coast sound than West Coast jazz, it has enough of Baker's influences. More important, it reflects Baker's talents as a trumpet player, one who in fact played with Charlie Parker when he was starting out. Baker's excellent trumpet work is bolstered by Johnny Griffin's tenor sax performance.
Closer to typical up-tempo West Coast sound is "Almost Like Being in Love," from 1959's Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe. Responding to other jazz artists releasing renditions of Broadway show tunes, Baker turns this song from the musical "Brigadoon" into an almost quintessential mix of elements of cool, bop and swing. This displays not only true West Coast jazz sounds but also the bop roots of the school. Once again, Baker's performance is highly upbeat and its edge is reinforced by the work of a trio of saxophonists, Herbie Mann on tenor, Zoot Sims on alto and the hard-driving Pepper Adams on baritone.
Yet while Baker unquestionably had the ability to be a hard-blowing trumpeter, that isn't his hallmark. He is much better known for his ballads, to which his lyrical phrasings were wholly suited. Baker's strength in this area is seen in "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," also from Chet Baker in New York. Here, instead of his bop abilities, Baker displays the phrasings and tone that made him such an excellent instrumental balladeer.
Yet it wasn't just Baker's trumpet that was suited to ballads. One release many consider essential to fully appreciating Baker's range is the appropriately named 1958 release Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You. Here, that LP is represented by two songs. The first, "Do It the Hard Way," is a Rodgers & Hart composition for the Broadway show "Pal Joey." Baker's performance not only reflects his almost feminine tenor, it is also the first recording of his scat singing, as he presents a vocal version of a trumpet solo over pianist Kenny Drew's comping. On the other vocal track, "The More I See You,"Baker gives us a fine trumpet solo between his vocal choruses. Yet both songs have something crucial in common. They plainly display the almost melancholy feel Baker's voice possessed, one equal to, if not greater than, what he attains on his trumpet.
The period of Baker's recordings with Riverside may not have been his most brilliant or productive, due in large part to his struggles with heroin. These were also among the last recordings Baker, who had already been jailed several times on drug charges as a result of his heroin addiction, would make in the U.S. before moving to Europe. But Baker's continuing drug problems meant he was an artist who may have never realized or displayed his full potential. As such, this one disc collection displays the full range of Baker's talents and abilities, both as an instrumentalist and a vocalist.