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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chet Baker, "Let's Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings"

Chet Baker
"Let's Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings"
Pacific Jazz (1989)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

There is a standard for singing standards that society has come to accept. Take a guy with a smooth voice, give him a backing band that fades away behind his voice , and let him do his thing with the classic songs of yesteryear. It's worked for Tony Bennet, Harry Connick Jr. and, as we've already seen, Fred Astaire. To the casual listener, the vocal work of Chet Baker on "Let's Get Lost" seems to work with the same formula. There are two major ways Baker doesn't fit the mold however.

The first is more obvious; Baker's vocal ability is far from excellent. In fact, it's rather plebeian. Baker's voice is as smooth as any, but his overly syllabic delivery is surprisingly un-melodic for a guy who made a name for himself popularizing "cool jazz." Moon sells Baker's questionable vocals as appealing in how down-to-earth they are. It's halfway true. As a regular joe, it's easier to sympathize with Baker's unconfident delivery than say, Count Basie's. It's ultimately a question of what you're into as a listener.

Baker was not signed to any label because of his voice of course. He was renowned not only for his smooth trumpet playing but also for his good looks and well known heroin addiction. He was somewhat the opposite of James Dean. Rather than a clean cut young man playing a bad boy, he was a bad boy playing a clean cut young man. Regardless, it generated sales, much like an album of Lil Wayne playing guitar. No matter how good it was, people will buy (This is not to say Baker was bad. Draw your own conclusion).

The real highlight of this collection of course is his trumpet playing, the second major difference from your average cluster of standards. Again, a casual listener might not pay too much attention to the instrumental solos that are typically left out of standards. Baker takes one or two trumpet solos during each track to deliver his trademark smooth playing.

"Cool jazz" served as the opposite to the relatively aggressive bop and hard bop that were also popular during the '50s. Scorching solos were scaled back into polished, relaxed affairs. This generally meant that the most talented artists played bop, but players like Baker, who could keep things lively and at ease simultaneously, made the subgenre worth hearing. Other typical features present on this collection and in smooth jazz include gentle pianos and percussion dominated by cymbal washes. Think of Vince Guaraldi's work for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for a dead-on example.

Baker ended up being another lost cause to heroin; "a musician's favorite murderer." He had his mouth mangled during a drug deal gone bad, and was unable to play the trumpet again, and he switched to the less enjoyable but more manageable flugelhorn (by then he had pawned most of his instruments for drug money anyway). He died in 1988 of an overdose. It's nice to listen to albums like "Let's Get Lost" and forget for a while that he wasn't so different from us when it counted.

INTERESTING FACT: Is it July 2 and are you in Oklahoma? Then why aren't you celebrating Chet Baker Day?

But Not For Me by Chet Baker on Grooveshark

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