[JPL] A Jazzman So Cool You Want Him Frozen at His Peak

Lazaro Vega wblv.wblu.fm at gmail.com
Tue Jun 5 22:02:23 EDT 2007

Hey folks --

Here's a letter from saxophonist Allen Lowe:

to the editor:

Terrence Rafferty's recent review of Bruce Weber's Chet Baker film
Let's Get Lost shows a surprising ignorance of Baker's talent and late
music, not to mention Baker's continued reputation. To say, as
Rafferty does, that "his talent, though real, was thin. Unlike his
rival Miles Davis, he persisted, with a stubbornness that suggests a
fairly serious failure of imagination, in playing the cool style long
past the point at which it had begun to sound mannered and even a
little silly" is to show virtually no awareness of the development of
Baker's music. Not only did his whole approach, from the dynamics of
his performance to his musical attack, evolve in real if sometimes
relatively subtle ways, but his reputation was/is intact among
historians and fans of the music. I remember running into the great
alto saxophonist Herb Geller in Germany, not long after Baker had
died. Geller talked about a late concert at which "Chet could only
play one octave, but it was unlike anybody else's octave." Chet
Baker's sound and means of expression remained unique and wondrous to
the end; his playing, from the 1960s on, took on a new and more
aggressive character and a deeper, darker lyricism. Rafferty has
apparently done everything except listen to the actual music.

Allen Lowe

And here's one from the former Chicago Sun Times writer Larry Kart:

Mr. Rafferty says some inaccurate, foolish things in his piece about
Chet Baker and the film "Let's Get Lost."

1) "Chet Baker hadn't mattered for a while when Mr. Weber was filming
him [inthe late 1980s].... He's practically forgotten now."

Mattered to whom? Messed up though he was, Baker remained a
significant draw in Europe until the end and arguably was a better
trumpet player in his later years (when he was in decent physical
shape, and sometimes when he was not -- the recorded evidence is
considerable). As for "practically forgotten now," that is absurd.
Baker recordings proliferate, and how could a "practically forgotten"
figure be the subject of a fairly recent and successful (though IMO
mostly in terms of favorable reviews) biography, to which Rafferty
himself refers, James Gavin's "Deep In A Dream"?

2) "Jazz history hasn't been kind to him; his talent, though real, was thin.
Unlike his rival Miles Davis, he persisted, with a stubbornness that
suggests a fairly serious failure of imagination, in playing the cool
style long past the point at which it had begun to sound mannered and
even a little silly."

Where does one begin? Leaving aside the dubious/snotty opinions here,
most jazz writers regard Baker's music more positively now than at any
point in his life -- in part because some of them, as mentioned above,
find the best of his later work to be more mature than his early work,
in part because the notion of Baker as a necessarily inferior "rival"
to Miles Davis is now seen as a relic both of a somewhat
understandable but thoughtless Crow Jim-ism and of the assumption that
Baker was little more than a pretty-boy jazz matinee idol. Musicians
knew better. Miles was Miles, and Chet was Chet -- both quite
individual figures, nor does the evidence suggests that Baker was
heavily influenced by Davis.

3) "Mr. Baker isn't so much the subject of this picture as its
pretext: He's the front man for Mr. Weber's meditations on image
making and its discontents. If you want the true story of Chet Baker,
you'd do better to look up James Gavin's superb, harrowing 2002
biography, 'Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker,' where you
can also find, in the words of a pianist named Hal Galper, perhaps the
most perceptive review of Mr. Weber's slippery movie. 'I thought it
was great,' Mr. Galper says, 'because it was so jive. Everybody's
lying, including Chet. You couldn't have wanted a more honest
reflection of him.' That's 'Let's Get Lost,' to the life: the greatest
jive movie, or maybe the jivest great movie, ever made."

I agree that "Let's Get Lost" is a jive movie, and that Baker serves as a
pretext for Bruce Weber's... I would say "manipulations" rather than
"meditations." In fact, the best part of James Gavin's otherwise rather
ill-informed "Deep In A Dream" is his takedown of Weber, whose
character and milieu he seems to know and care (albeit in a hostile
way) far more about than he does about the life, art, and times of
Chet Baker. Rather than "Deep In A Dream," you'd do better to read
Jeroen de Valk's "Chet Baker: His Life and Music" (Berkeley Hills
Books). BTW, the by no means uncritical de Valk writes that the 2-CD
set "Chet Baker in Tokyo" (Evidence), recorded in 1987, one year
before Baker's death, is "his best recording ever." Baker also is in
remarkable form on 2-CD set "The Last Concert" (Enja), which was
recorded less than a month (!) before his death.

End Quotes

Both of these guys make valid points about this article.

That Jeroen de Valk book gets closest to dealing with the music of
Chet's later years, the Evidence recording he refers to is great, and
he knows enough about Chet's methadone treatments that he can pin
point the better performances from that prolific last period.

There may have been a time when Baker was coming out of Miles, a
certain period of Miles, in that he focused on the mid-range of the
horn, and he chose a few tunes Miles recorded (but so did many jazz
musicians and they still do -- Bye Bye Blackbird with a two beat feel,
or On Green Dolphin Street, Four or any of a number of others) yet his
personalization of that sound went deeper than mimicry.

Recently John Proux hit the scene --he's from Grand Rapids and went to
Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, among other places -- singing tunes from the
Chet Baker song book and he does a good job with them.  He's a fine
young talent. Yet when I hear him sing those numbers it's like, where
are the flat notes? Chet so imprinted his interpretations on those
that to hear someone else sing them without the salt, that is,
"correctly," is to take away some of the personality Baker seasoned
them with. Proux sings his way because of who he is and does not want
to sing them exactly the way Chet did -- which is cool.

During his later period, too, Chet was a heavy influence on Meredith
D'Ambrosio. He was far from forgotton or washed up. That's just flat
out wrong.

That Enja recording of "The Last Great Concert" includes a blistering
version of George Shearing's "Conception" which Chet nails, just blows
up, which confounds me no end as he played all that tricky bopmatism
by EAR.

There's also a recording on Soul Note from the later years with a
regional, provicial symphony which (if memory serves) includes a
deeply moving version of Laura.

I have a soft spot for "Chet Baker Sings Again" on Timeless, a kind of
Marlon Brando meets the jazz ballad which doesn't rate on too many
lists but it was one of those recordings that was played a lot on the
radio when it was new as it was released about the same time as a
Mosaic box on Baker.  And I don't think there's ever been a recording
as slow as the duo album by Paul Bley and Baker on Steeplechase.
There's a certain virtuosity in that, a kind of poetry, too.

Then there are all those guitar/bass/trumpet recordings Baker made
with Doug Raney and Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson (who doesn't exactly
suck in the chops department, I mean, he made his name with Oscar
Peterson so why in the world would he cotton up to a no playing junkie
pain in the ass if there wasn't a heavy musical reason for doing
so?...ok, money, but I believe NHOP had more invested in that music
than just 'playing another B flat gig for the bread'). From one live
appearance in 1979 there are three albums by that trio, and their
studio date, "The Touch of Your Lips."

There just wasn't enough reality underpinning this article in the New
York Times. Baker's last period had some true high points for jazz.
There are many musicians who found it so.

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