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CD Review: Chet Baker – Italian Movies

Chet Baker – Italian Movies
(Moochin’ About, MOOCHIN03. 3 CD set. Review by Nicolas Pillai.)

At the end of disc 1, Chet sings ‘Arrivederci’ in that haunting bittersweet voice, backed by lush strings. It’s a rather charming, wistful song from the musical comedy Urlatori alla sbarra (1960) and those who’ve seen Bruce Weber’s controversial documentary Let’s Get Lost (1988) will remember the sequence playing out behind the end credits. Chet leans against a tree, his dialogue dubbed by an improbably masculine-sounding Italian, as lovers frolic around him in a pastoral landscape. It’s the apotheosis of Weber’s vision of Chet: the corrupted little boy, lost to the past.

Refreshingly, the music that comprises this collection rather explodes that myth. There is none of the gloom or self-indulgence that typified the soupier of Chet’s recordings. Indeed, often Chet isn’t really the centre of attention and it’s nice to hear him playing so well with his Italian peers on disc 1. Along with Urlatori alla sbarra, this first disc presents the scores for Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (Fiasco in Milan, 1959) and I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna St, 1958). Musically, Chet is in good company here although the repetition of musical cues, spread out across a film, can become a little wearing as part of a CD sequence.

The music on discs 2 and 3 is more variable, and may be of lesser interest to the jazz fan. Disc 2’s score for Intrigo a Los Angeles (1964) shifts from small band jazz to breezy Mediterranean pop to atonal organ/percussion. The latter presumably corresponded with a scene of torture or hallucination but for a listener ignorant of the source films like myself, the disc is tonally rather confusing. It is here especially that I would have welcomed liner notes that gave some account of the films themselves. One realises as one listens that this isn’t so much a Chet Baker collection as a collection on which Chet features. Indeed, it’s a shame that the CD set’s title omits the name of Piero Umiliani who, in previous releases of this music (e.g. by Liuto Records), shared the billing with Chet. The interior of the box does provide a rather touching recollection by Umiliani of working with the trumpeter, however: “I offered him three notes and he made something beautiful out of them. The idea was mine. The creativity was his…”

On disc 3, the score to Smog (1962), Chet is even more absent. Again, musical styles chop and change, switching between Milanese cocktail party, pleasantly sultry torch songs by Helen Merrill and a harmonising vocal group. Chet comes in at track 9, his trumpet sounding frail and furry. In James Gavin’s biography Deep in a Dream, he describes Italy as a particular low point in Chet’s lifetime of addiction. Perhaps this accounts for the sloppiness of some of his playing here. Happily, he’s back on more sparkling form for the CD’s finale ‘Thinking Blues’.

The CDs come in a smart card slipcase, a nice design marred somewhat by poor copy-editing and some pixelated images. On the album cover, Chet stands outside a shop, his face framed by postcards and magazines. Peering from beneath a flat cap, he looks bemused, ill at ease and uncomfortable in his own skin. Arrivederci, Chet.

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