Chet Baker CDs Reveal Much More Than Leader of 'Cool' School of Jazz

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He had the dashing good looks of James Dean, his contemporary. His jazz recordings with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan sold well in the 1950s - and are still popular among jazz fans today. He was enigmatic, this most spellbinding jazz trumpeter, unable to read a note of music, yet able to improvise complex harmonic lines with the most sophisticated jazzmen of the century. What was the key to Chet Baker's jazz, and why does his popularity, nine years after his death, continue to grow?

With due respect to my colleagues in the music criticism business, let me suggest that most critics have rigidly and inaccurately stereotyped the artist. Baker has been described in countless articles as a leader of the "cool" school of jazz, meaning that he loved conventional Tin Pan Alley melodies. He played them in a softly modulated tone suggesting bittersweet angst, in an easy-going style bridging swing and bop.

Four new Baker CDs certainly offer a glimpse of that sound - but that is only a fraction of what they do reveal. West Coast Live (Pacific Jazz) is an intriguing two-disc set of largely previously unreleased live recordings by Baker with the saxophonist Stan Getz from the '50s. Anyone interested in this fascinating mismatch of jazz greats should purchase this set and avoid Stan Meets Chet (Verve), a studio session marked by Baker's descent into a drug-induced fit of sour notes and phlegmatic phrasing. Note that "West Coast Live" still chronicles a mismatch. Baker favors short trumpet phrases, tart and probing commentaries upon old standards like "Yesterdays" and "All the Things You Are." Getz, on the other hand, executes long and sinewy, velvet-toned lines. Their interactions are minimal; they basically keep out of each other's way. And yet their very lack of connection seems to bring out a measure of imaginative aggression in their exciting solos. They could be drivingly hard swingers, even with material as perennially and unseasonably corny as "Winter Wonderland." Their soaring energy on Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," a tune rarely heard in jazz today, is positively sensational. …