The Chet Baker story continues to be a tempting one for Hollywood producers. Virtually every hot young male star has been mentioned as a possibility for what would seem to be a plum role. And Matt Damon's's brief, Baker-like rendering of "My Funny Valentine" in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" positioned him as a potentially believable candidate.
Why does Baker's story appeal so much? In part because it is such a poignant representative of the familiar entertainment world tale of squandered talent. Baker, in the '50s, seemed to have it all: superb ability as a jazz trumpeter, an utterly engaging vocal style, and James Dean-like good looks; he also had an unshakable drug habit. By the '80s, before his still somewhat mysterious death in Amsterdam (via a fall from a second-story window), he was a dismal figure, his face and body revealing the ravages of decades-long addiction.
At his best, Baker could play with anyone and, in fact, was Charlie Parker's trumpeter of choice during one of the legendary bop creator's visits to Los Angeles. For many jazz fans, Baker is best known for his work with the Gerry Mulligan piano-less quartet in the early '50s; others favor him for his wispy but sensuous vocals; and those who heard him during periods of revival in the late '70s and early '80s recall his extraordinary ability to scat-sing at a time when his trumpet chops were not up to his youthful levels.
In 1955, Baker made his first trip to Paris--a city that has always welcomed American jazz players, and never more so than in the first postwar decade. Obviously buoyed by his surroundings (despite whatever his drug use may have been), Baker made a series of recordings for the French Barclay label in the company of such sterling French artists as pianists Gerard Gustin, Raymond Fol and Francy Boland, Swedish drummer Bert Dahlander and Americans Richard Twardzik on piano and Jimmy Bond on bass.
A healthy sampling from those sessions--originally released in the U.S. on EmArcy--is present in "Chet Baker in Paris, 1955-1956" (****, Verve). Despite differing rhythm sections, the sessions reveal Baker's trumpet playing in full bloom, very much his own instantly identifiable voice, despite the occasional traces of influence from Miles Davis.
Baker was, at heart, a melodic improviser, one who had a unique knack for creating beautifully arching counter-phrases rather than riffing across the harmonies. Eleven tracks--including such standards as "Alone Together," "Summertime," "I'll Remember April" and "These Foolish Things"--are performed with rhythm trio accompaniment. Three tracks showcase Baker with a large ensemble and arrangements by Francy Boland and Bobby Jaspar. A pair of unexpectedly dissonant tunes by Bob Zieff--"Just Duo" and "Sad Walk"--provide Baker with fascinating musical surroundings. And, for the Baker vocal fans, there is the late-night poignancy of "Everything Happens to Me."
John Coltrane, born in 1926, three years before Baker, was also a star-crossed artist. Yet, although he died in 1967, 21 years before Baker's death, he triumphed over the drug addiction that possessed Baker, creating--in little more than a decade--a body of music that has made him the primary saxophone influence of the past three decades. In the mid-'60s, he produced a series of recordings for Impulse! that defined the adventurous, eclectic musical events in jazz at the same time that rock was impacting popular music. Five have now been re-released, some with unissued takes, some remastered from original session tapes.
"Ascension" (****) includes both versions of the seminal title track--one from the original pressing and "Edition 2" (the more familiar one) from later releases. "Impressions" (****) (which includes Eric Dolphy on two tunes) adds a bonus track, "Dear Old Stockholm." "Kulu Se Mama" (****), with its African ensemble-sounding title track and the powerful drum duel with Elvin Jones on "Vigil," also includes the previously unissued "Selflessness" and "Dusk Dawn" as well as an alternate take on the latter.
"Interstellar Space" (****), recorded in 1967, six months before Coltrane's death and first released in 1974, is a series of duets with drummer Rashied Ali--a demanding experience for many listeners, but an intriguing insight into one of the directions Coltrane might have taken had he survived the liver cancer that took his life. "New Thing at Newport" (***), recorded at the 1965 festival, only includes two Coltrane tracks--"One Down, One Up" and a live version of "My Favorite Things"--with the remaining tracks by the Archie Shepp Quartet.