Chet Baker Trio – Live in Paris
(Elemental 5990541. 3 LPs. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
On the labels of this handsome triple vinyl set, the font makes the artist credit look rather like “Chet Baker Brio”. Which is appropriate because these are spirited and enriching sessions by the trumpeter from the autumn of his career, consisting of two live gigs recorded, with admirable clarity and purity, at the instigation of André Francis of ORTF (now Radio France), on 17 June 1983 at Esplanade de La Défense as part of a festival there, and for their programme “Le Jazz Club” at Le Petit Opportun in central Paris on 7 February 1984.
Beyond the more obvious things Chet Baker was famous for – his music, his early matinee idol looks, his drug habit – he has also gone down in jazz history for the quip, “It takes a pretty good drummer to be better than no drummer at all.” This is a rather cruel epigram but one that wasn’t solely ideologically – or musicologically – motivated.
Because by this last decade of his life, the 1980s, Chet Baker was mostly gigging and recording in Europe and he favoured a streamlined pack-a-suitcase-and-go ensemble to tour with him, and there was no question of taking a drumkit along. Indeed he often went on the road with the guitarist Nicola Stilo.
But here the trio with brio consists of Baker, pianist Michael Graillier – with Dominique Lemerle on bass on the Defense set and Riccardo Del Fra on bass at Le Petit Oportun. The absence of drums gives their music a supple, floating sound; unanchored in a positive sense, as on the extended, oceanic rise and fall of Arbor Way, which weighs in at over 18 minutes and occupies an entire side of the vinyl set.
Chet Baker releases from this late period are frequently dismissed and denigrated, partly because he is over-represented on records, some of which certainly aren’t classics (though others most certainly are, such as The Legacy with the NDR Big Band). But it seems there is often also almost a personal anger at Baker for the loss of his looks and the deterioration of his voice.
And it’s true that this set features the no longer pretty, indeed haggard and dentally challenged Chet, and certainly his singing is not the best thing here. But, personally, I have always found Chet Baker’s vocals (heresy warning) – even at the Sputnik-high pinnacle of his 1950s popularity – rather monochrome and attenuated, although his sense of timing is never less than fine. In other words, he wasn’t Frank Sinatra or Mark Murphy. And while he wasn’t Miles Davis either, he was one the few trumpeters whom the notoriously caustic Davis rated.
In this final phase of Baker’s story a crucial figure was the Belgian Jacques Pelzer, an ardent admirer and jazz aficionado who combined playing alto sax (“a home grown Charlie Parker”[*]) with running a pharmacy out of his house in Liège. It would be hard to conceive a more perfect fit as a friend for the trumpeter and indeed, “Baker kept a key to the house which became his refuge for the rest of his life.”(*)
But more importantly Pelzer was the father-in-law of Michael Graillier, who developed into one of Baker’s favourite pianists and is unquestionably a hero of these recordings. Indeed, it’s Graillier’s fluid playing which is likely to be the first thing that strikes the listener, exploring the tunes with his elaborate encircling dexterity as he does on Stella by Starlight. The jaunty hipness and probing precision of Funk in Deep Freeze (a Hank Mobley composition and an old Baker favourite) is another highlight from Graillier and indeed the whole trio, with Riccardo Del Fra providing swinging support and Baker’s interventions impressively minimal and beautifully judged.
Horace Silver’s Strollin’ underlines what a fine session, and a fine band, this was. Del Fra’s unshowy bass is like an endlessly unfurling red carpet under the advancing inventiveness of Michael Graillier’s exceedingly engaging piano and Baker’s commentary is warm and hiply descriptive. And the gentle and seductive Lament (by J.J. Johnson) features some exquisite expressivity from Graillier and an affecting depth of feeling from the entire trio, with Baker bittersweet and elegiac.
Available as both a triple LP and double CD set on Elemental Records, these valuable tapes have seen the light of day thanks to Zev Feldman, who has an admirable track record of painstakingly retrieving valuable music from obscurity, often through releases on the Resonance label.
(*) The quotations in this piece are taken from James Gavin’s dark but indispensable Chet Baker biography, Deep in a Dream.
NB: The date of the first session was 17 June 1983, a fact confirmed by France-Musique’s Open Jazz programme featuring the release, even though, on the album cover itself, the date 17 July also crops up.