3 Album Reviews: Chet Baker (Soberish, Heroin, More Heroin)


Chet Baker – It Could Happen to You (1958) – B-

Pretty lightweight, and there are better, earlier, less heroin-addicted Chet Baker albums if you’re craving his unique vocals. This one famously got derided by Down Beat‘s Martin Williams, who gave the album one star and lazily criticized Chet Baker’s inability to sing (“If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter”) and derivative trumpet playing; it’s one of those scathing reviews where an artist’s image has been tarnished (in this case, Chet Baker had become a full-blown heroin addict), making them an easy target for hyperbole. The real hero here isn’t Chet Baker, but Kenny Drew, whose lively piano intro and solo brings out “My Heart Stood Still”, and whose flourish after Chet Baker sings “I try to give a party and the guy upstairs complains” is the best part about “Everything Happens to Me” (undeservedly the longest track here); Drew also selected the songs in the first place. Elsewhere, the best tracks are the bookends, “Do It the Hard Way” for Chet Baker’s surprisingly scat and “Old Devil Moon,” if only for Philly Joe Jones’ drumming.

A final note: in the year following December 1957, Chet Baker recorded four distinctive albums (all released in 1958): collaborative albums with other handsome, white jazzman Stan Getz and other cool-oozing jazzman Gerry Mulligan; the Miles Davis-lite In New York (the best one; also with Philly Joe Jones) and a vocal jazz album in this one. I don’t think any of them were particularly great, or as great as they could have been in the case of Stan Meets Chet, but I do think the variety therein is worthy of commendation, and that there was likely a great playlist lurking somewhere in all of them.

Chet Baker – In New York (1958) – B+

Paraphrasing The Globe and Mail’s Joe Queenan: Miles Davis is important and Chet Baker is not. If the sentence were stated so plainly (“…John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong are important in a way that Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson and Chet Baker are not”), it might be one of the harshest put-downs in history, and it explains why Chet Baker is so overrated by more “casual” fans of jazz and so underrated by more “serious” fans of jazz (I loathe that I have to use those terms, but what’s a boy to do sometimes). The terms “whiter Miles Davis” and “safer Miles Davis” often follow his trumpet playing, while his unique, thin voice is an acquired taste (itself picking up more extreme criticism around the same time). What results is a discography whose critical evaluations are in desperate need of a reset button. (Baker didn’t do himself any favors by releasing some ridiculous number of records to pay for his heroin addiction, a handful of them outright bad and many more mediocre.) This one’s underrated, wherein Chet Baker (actually, label founder Orrin Keepnews) surrounds himself with la crème de la crop: Philly Joe Jones (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), Al Haig (piano) and Johnny Griffin (saxophone). (You might recognize the rhythm section as the one who was working at the time in Miles Davis’ classic quintet.) The playing alternates between reticent (“Blue Thoughts”, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”) to maybe too polite (“Solar”) to an intensity that probably wasn’t possible were it not for the band (“Fair Weather”, “Hotel 49”). Certain things are extraordinary: how Johnny Griffin flickers on “Blue Thoughts”; how Chet Baker returns to the theme of “Fair Weather” after Al Haig’s solo (and what a delightful theme to return to!); how Philly Joe Jones prevents “When Lights Are Low” from fading into the background. As mentioned previously, four albums released in 1958, none of them great. But you can probably assemble a great compilation from just those, and most of which would probably come from In New York.

Chet Baker – Albert’s House (1969) – F(uzzy)

Missing his teeth and in desperate need of money for another heroin fix, Steve Allen gave Baker the sheet music for a dozen songs and Baker proceeded to get stoned and not learn them. The only way this might have worked would have been to bury Baker underneath a team of supple musicians by way of In New York, but they didn’t do that either: Paul Smith’s organ might actually win the award for cheesiest sound in the world (worst offender: “Farewell, San Francisco”); the arrangements (ie. “Albert’s House” sounds exactly like “Time”) don’t allow for any of the other players to do anything.

3 responses to “3 Album Reviews: Chet Baker (Soberish, Heroin, More Heroin)

  1. I always felt like Chet had so much potential, and his descent into drugs was such a shame. Funny people would bash him for drugs but not Miles…

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