Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
Chet Baker – To Mickey’s Memory
Chet Baker – Something For Liza
Chet Baker – Lucius Lu
Trumpeter Chet Baker spent the early part of the 1950’s making a noteworthy emergence onto the jazz scene in and around Los Angeles, first with none other than Charlie Parker, and shortly afterward locking horns with Gerry Mulligan in the baritone saxophonist’s piano-less quartet. The latter group’s existence was brief but it effectively put “cool jazz” on the map. Saxophonist/flutist Buddy Collette hosted the group at his apartment and witnessed the rehearsals in which Mulligan first tried to make sense of this chordless cohort:
“The first rehearsal didn’t sound too great, because they didn’t seem to know how to play without the piano…Finally, Gerry figured out how to make it work by playing more counter lines on the baritone, while Chet played melody and soloed. When Gerry would be soloing, Chet would do the same thing. There would be a countermelody. They weren’t trying to have two solos at once, but just to enhance or reinforce what the soloist was doing. That began to work and they kept it interesting. The main thing was interest, rather than having the piano comping all the chords.” (Jazz Generations, p. 103-104)
This cooperative, collaborative nature of simultaneously improvising melody and countermelody is, in my mind, forever linked to and synonymous with West Coast jazz. It can be found in a lot of places, and that word that Collette returns to while describing those rehearsals – “interest” – matches well with this kind of music. Soloists play off each other in a cerebral way where one player’s licks become the other players jumping off point. In this recording of “Long Ago and Far Away” by Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, the continuing and incoming soloists elide so that there is never a break in the action.
Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars – Long Ago and Far Away (from Volume 6, Contemporary Records C3504)
(apologies…my copy has some groove wear, and this is the last track on side one)
Conte Condoli (trumpet), Bud Shank (alto), Bob Cooper (tenor), Stu Williamson (valve trombone), Claude Williamson (piano), Howard Rumsey (bass), Stan Levey (drums)
After Mulligan went to jail on drug charges, Baker’s quartet with Russ Freeman recorded several 10″s worth of material. Most well known are the tunes that would make up “Chet Baker Sings” but his trumpet-based material with this group is similarly engaging. Many of Freeman’s tunes are featured, including “No Ties,” where Baker jumps in with Freeman after both men take individual solos.
Chet Baker – No Ties (from Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman, Pacific Jazz Records PJLP-6)
Chet Baker (trumpet), Russ Freeman (piano), Carson Smith (bass), Larry Bunker (drums)
All of this sets the stage for Chet Baker and Crew, a record cut at a time when hard bop was beginning to flourish. The music coming out of New York and elsewhere featured solos full of brash swagger and hip vocabulary, at times contrasting with bop thanks to the deeply swinging play of the musicians, while at the same time it borrowed liberally from the advanced harmonic language pioneered by Bird and Diz. This 1956 LP for Pacific Jazz features a Chet Baker group that doesn’t seem interested in the laid back stylings of the quartets that included either Mulligan or Freeman. “To Mickey’s Memory” launches the record from a familiar origin – the well-trodden chord changes of “I’ll Remember April” Even at fast speeds, those earlier bands almost seem to careen along, dancing amongst the whispery brushwork of the drummer, but that is far less common on Chet Baker and Crew. You’ll hear moments of sunny L.A. on this record, mainly in the melodies of the tunes themselves, but just as soon as the band leads off in a relaxed manner on a song like “Lucius Lu,” they quickly dig in and swing it through the duration.
Noticeably absent from this music is the bubbly interplay that seemed to be a staple in the music of the West Coast scene, and while not intended to be an insult to the usual suspects recording for labels like Pacific Jazz and Contemporary, some of the sidemen on this date play with enough personality that you don’t notice the absence of those Mulligan-style countermelodies. Each musician is clearly meant to be noticed as an individual, and when they come together it is to be potent, not to create added “interest.”
Photo of Chet Baker and Bobby Timmons by Ray Avery, lovingly stolen from jazzinphoto.wordpress.com
Bobby Timmons, the pianist whose presence is so strongly felt on this LP, had appeared with Kenny Dorham at the Cafe Bohemia in New York City before stepping into the studio with Baker. Several accounts state that Baker’s first attempts at a group with Urso were also without piano or any other chordal instrument, but it’s easy to imagine this record falli flat without Timmons. Following this recording, Timmons would for a time find his way into the Blue Note fold, but even on Chet Baker and Crew there are hints of where his style of piano playing was headed. You can hear it more in the full-bodied chords he plays behind the horns, while there aren’t as many bluesy tinges to be found just yet.
Providing further separation from the trumpeter’s groups of a few years previous, Phil Urso plays tenor saxophone with a tone that is more direct than that of Mulligan or of most other West Coast archetype players. It almost seems to hearken back to the golden age of the big bands, and most mentions of Urso can’t help but toss in the fact that he was a devotee of tenor titan Lester Young. Urso passed in 2008, and in his fascinating obituary of the saxophonist, Ted Gioia explains that he felt very comfortable on the East Coast, and cites several different musicians’ sentiments that Urso was a “monster” on the bandstand, including a letter that Baker sent him in 1971 where he wrote, “I have always felt you were and are the most underrated of America’s jazz players and composers.” The remembrance, which can be found at jazz.com, is a fascinating read.
In the presence of these outside influences represented by Urso and Timmons, Baker fires out of the gate with his ever present lyricism but finds moments to sport a fuller tone and a presence that matches the other horn on the front line. I dare to say that at times his tone has tinges of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan; however this quickly disappears when Baker dips into the puckish, introverted moments of his solos. Still, as someone who owns and treasures some of his earlier material on Pacific, hearing him step out in such a demonstrative way is exciting to hear. The “airiness” that makes him instantly recognizable is diminished in a very enjoyable way without sacrificing the personality of his playing.
Following Chet Baker and Crew, Baker recorded more material for Pacific, including several big band arrangements that include Urso and Timmons. Shortly afterward, he went on to record LPs for the Riverside label, where his voice continued to be featured alongside his trumpet playing.