Pete Johnson’s Blast from My Past: Chet Baker – “Chet Baker & Strings”

August 10, 2018, is my 21st Wedding Anniversary to my wife Jill, and I must admit that love is on my mind and in my heart today. As someone famously sang one time,” Love is a many splendored thing”. Think about that for a second. Splendored is such a great word and ties today’s album pick to the mood I woke up in. Brilliance, coloring, gorgeous appearance, all are invoked in the definition of splendored. I will use them all while invoking the brilliant and gorgeous appearance of the record by Chet Baker.

We can start by simply noting the line up of the musicians on the record:

Chet Baker – trumpet….

Bud Shank – alto saxophone, flute (# 4, 6-8 & 11)….

Zoot Sims – tenor saxophone (# 1-3, 5, 9, 10 & 12-15)….

Russ Freeman – piano….

Joe Mondragon – bass….

Shelly Manne – drums….

Sam Cytron, Jack Gasselin, George Kast, Eudice Shapiro, Paul Shure, Felix Slatkin – violin….

Lou Kievman, Paul Robyn – viola….

Victor Gottlieb cello….

Jack Montrose (# 4, 10, 14 & 15), Johnny Mandel (# 1, 6, 7, 11 & 13), Marty Paich (# 3 & 5), Shorty Rogers (# 2, 8, 9 & 12) – arrangers

If you know your jazz you know these guys were about the top of the L. A. players. They infuse the album with an extreme confidence and ability that allows the music to become very light and convey the beauty of romance. I often have visions of beautiful butterflies taking off and landing on different flowers in a field while listening to the songs on this record. When music makes me fantasize, I know it is the best and most creative music I can hear. It does not happen with all music, and that is what makes it special.

Chet was one strange musician to me. I often get conflicts while listening to his music. I can get sad listening to some of his records. Sometimes, you can hear his heroin addiction be like a deep sea diver wearing a wet suit between him and his music. This is one of the very few records of his where he was able to briefly rise above that. This album was made in 1953 or 1954. Chet only had until 1968 to make music before his mouth injury from a drug deal retribution changed his sound forever. Much of those years and music were tainted by his drug escapades. There are two Chet Bakers, there is the trumpet player and then there is the reluctant, vulnerable singer. This album highlights Chet, the trumpet player. There was something about the tone Chet had that is affecting to me. I think music was the one area in his life that Chet tried the hardest, but even then, he did not turn in the effort that he could have without the drug addiction.

I often hear a thinly veiled contempt sometimes in his playing, where you can tell that Chet had something other than his playing on his mind. I often think this accounts for the emotionally detached edge his music had. People and critics I think picked up on that and that is where the “cool” label got attached to his resume. With this album though, he found a balance and the end product is magnificent. Women, I have found out by and large, are not the most susceptible audience for jazz appreciation. Sure, there are some that really get it, but trust me, there ain’t that many. This is the instrumental album that I had used many a time to set a late night mood for conversation and pondering the wonders of life with a female companion.

A year or so later Chet put out the album “Chet Plays and Sings”. That is the one so many cite today as the romance album. I often found that when Chet sings the attention gets drawn to the voice, and the whole thing could become an exercise in futility, when someone gets distracted from the present situation. That does not happen on this record. The focus here is a soundtrack for romance. It worked every time, and if it did not, it usually was not Chet’s fault. The tunes here are great.

I know jazz, but I do not know it to the extent others may know it. Particular song titles regarding the music tend not to really stick in my mind. I will list some songs to highlight some of my faves. They are favorites due to experiences though; not due to my appreciation and knowledge of the tune itself. The first one I will highlight is due to my full appreciation of the music and my wife. “I Married An Angel” is a title that could be disputed somewhat, in its literal sense. But overall, I do agree with its sentiment more often than not. It is a beautiful version of a great Rodgers and Hart melody. It just feels right to me on a lot of levels. It is not rushed, and it has a subdued grandeur that comes together at the very end, and is encapsulated by Chet’s last trumpet notes. That is how a damn jazz ballad should end, especially one played by a near damn genius.

I also love Chet’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Love You”. This one is deceptive and to me is one of the jauntiest soft love songs you will ever hear. There are contradictions at play in the arrangement that explore the push and pull nature of the melody and music. This is real good stuff. The other great Cole Porter song on this record is “Why Shouldn’t I”. Just the title alone is great and a wonderful question to ask yourself everyday in this uncertain world. I love Cole Porter’s musical constructs. They are top notch and there is a reason why so many musicians thought his tunes were worth exploring. The result of Chet’s choosing this one is clearly self-evident in the recording. It is pure magic.

Looking at the length of this review reminds me of the other reason I love this record. It is short. The whole length of the record is 36 minutes. The longest song is Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” at 4 minutes or so, Every other song is either a little over 3 minutes or a little below it. “The Wind” always reminds me of a summer storm coming from the west and heading out to the ocean. It starts out really ominous, then somewhere in the middle cracks of light come through the darkness. It gives me the feeling of watching a storm come and go at the same time, which is probably why it is called “The Wind”. Anyway, enough words ,this music is for listening and loving. Just trust me, Chet Baker is great on this one. Happy Anniversary My Love, and all others should go out and buy this record. You can thank me later. ;o)

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