In our series in which musicians do a “deep dive” into the music of their inspirations, singer/ pianist Robin Phillips describes ten tracks by Chet Baker. Robin writes:
My relationship with Chet has become a bit chicken-and-egg: did I start listening more closely to him because I was being likened to him as a jazz singer? Or was it because his singing just moved me? To begin with I felt a bit uneasy about the comparison (and, to be honest, when people found echoes of Mel Tormé as well), considering that these kinds of remarks were people’s polite way of suggesting that my vocals lacked depth…but I am now arriving at a point where I’m grateful when anyone makes these connections between me and these two complete masters of delivering a melody.
Chet’s vocal quality is nothing extraordinary, certainly not soulful, often perhaps ‘weak’ or ‘nasal’ sounding. But the vocal tone is almost irrelevant, Chet had the ability to do what almost all musicians aspire to: he could sing like an instrumentalist (and play like a singer…). It’s almost impossible to name just 10 tracks, but here are the tracks I really would miss if I could never hear them again:
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1. Blue Room (a capella)
Close your eyes, wear headphones, Chet is singing in your ear. One of those fortuitous moments in a studio with a ribbon mic, and not released for years afterwards. Recorded at the end of a strings session in December 1953, little over a minute long and complete with studio noises in the background, this ‘outtake’ says everything you need to know about Chet’s ability as a vocalist, not in a dynamic way, but just the sheer ability to deliver a melody and lyric.
2. Forgetful from Embraceable You
Almost inconceivable to me that this exquisite track (and album) could have been recorded in 1957 yet not released until 1995, considered at the time of recording to be a little too ‘downbeat’ for release. Chet loved space, you can see and hear it in his decisions about the musicians that played with him over the years, and was probably learned during his times with Gerry Mulligan. Chet on vocals and trumpet, Dave Wheat on guitar, Russ Savakus on bass, this is one of my favourite Chet albums ever, and this track in particular moves me deeply every time I hear it. I cannot believe a better recording exists, or could exist. The perfect mix of melody, lyrics and delivery.
3. Hotel 49 from Chet Baker in New York
Ok, maybe this is more of the player Chet wanted to be here. Chet held Miles in the highest esteem, often tried to get closer to his sound, and I don’t think ever really got over Miles’ apparent indifference to his recordings. But here, buoyed on by Johnny Griffin, who never takes prisoners, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, Chet delivers a straight-ahead play-it-like-it’s-your-last-session performance. Chet also stands as a great example as to why we should follow who we are and not who we’re trying to be, just like Satchmo spent so long trying to smooth out his voice to fit the popular smooth tone of the time.
4. Line For Lyons (vocal) from Chet Baker & Crew
The instrumental version of this track written by Gerry Mulligan is a pure example of West Coast jazz along with all the required space that goes with it. But it really comes into its own here when Chet sings Bill Loughborough’s lyrics – his ‘lazy’ delivery sounds simple but requires utter conviction. The recording also features one of the worst bits of tape splicing solo editing I’ve ever heard.
5. Chetty’s Lullaby from Chet Is Back!
I remember this track causing me some confusion when I first heard it before I really got into the Chet story (thanks to Matthew Ruddick’s fantastic My Funny Valentine biography); how could a trumpet-hocking heroine addict learn to sing so exquisitely in Italian? It turns out Chet learned Italian whist living in Italy and especially whilst talking with the guards during his stay in an Italian prison for narcotics offences; many of those Italians who spoke with him say he spoke with the fluent accent of a local. Chet didn’t write many originals, and many tunes attributed to him as a composer are studio improvisations over a chord sequence. But this, the lyrics, melody and utterly perfect trumpet solo, blow me away every time. I sing it in Italian in my ‘Robin Phillips Sings & Plays: Chet Baker’ performances, and the specific Italian words in this song are always a challenge to deliver with any convincing authenticity.
6. It Could Happen To You from It Could Happen To You
I love this Van Heusen / Burke composition at the worst of times, but this is my favourite delivery of the standard. It actually has very little to do with the delivery of the lyric and more about this incredible improvised, albeit rather short, ‘perfect’ scat solo. In fact, it sounds so much like a trumpet solo being vocalised I wonder if he’s scatting a previously recorded/played trumpet solo…
7. The Thrill Is Gone from Chet Baker Sings
Chet’s debut singing album and 70 years later I’m still bowled over by it. The impact of this song is so strong that it was the inspiration for Almost Blue by Elvis Costello; a song which in my mind (and I think Elvis’) Chet didn’t deliver his best performance on whilst recording. It’s also one of the only (the only?) recordings where Chet accompanies himself on trumpet with the benefit of overdubbing. Apparently, Chet didn’t like doing this with recordings, he was very much a ‘play it, take the cash, and head off to see his fixer’ kind of guy. But I disagree with him and wish he’d done it more; who better to accompany Chet, than Chet himself?
8. Little Girl Blue from Embraceable You
Another from the ‘lost’ Embraceable You album. This Rodgers & Hart song is beautiful on its own but once again Chet’s is my favourite version. Although I have to say recently Anita Wardell’s vocalese version has joined it. It’s always funny to me when you hear an artist singing about a child / baby (is that what this song was about when written by Rodgers & Hart for Jumbo?), when you know the artist themselves did not prioritise their own duties as a parent. However, sometimes I suppose their songs inspire what is required from so many others, and I for one am very glad that this version exists.
9. Just Friends from Chet Baker Sings And Plays
It seems wrong to discuss Chet without mentioning Russ Freeman who worked so closely with him and was undoubtedly an influence on the Chet sound we all know, so I’m glad to find the excuse to mention him here. This track just has West Coast jazz vibe written all over it; an easy going medium-up swinger with the utterly relaxed vocal delivery of Mr Baker nailing it. The album also has I Remember You and Let’s Get Lost, both of which deliver exactly the magic described above, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing my own vocalese lyrics to the Let’s Get Lost solo, choosing to describe one of those fun nights out at the ‘late late show’ at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, pre-pandemic.
10. You Don’t Know What Love Is from Chet Baker Sings And Plays
Another from the Sings And Plays album, although I could have easily chosen I Get Along Without You Very Well from Chet Baker Sings for the same vibe. Amazing to think that Chet had to fight tooth and nail to get the chance to record himself as a singer (was that why he laid down a capella tracks in the studio in between other tracks?), as he was after all seen as a trumpet player first and foremost. And let’s face it, whilst I utterly dig his trumpet playing, could I list 10 tracks I can’t live without from Chet Baker the trumpet player? Maybe, maybe not…