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Chet Baker at the Moonlight

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Aging beauty is still beautiful. Jazz greats lucky enough to grow old tended to develop new techniques for expressing how they felt when they played. Their honesty and sensitivity remained intact but both were more pensive and thoughtful. What they played was still elegant and transparent. This was especially true of trumpeter Chet Baker in his final years.

In November 1985, three years before he died, Baker performed at the Moonlight club in Macerata on Italy's east coast, halfway between Florence and Rome. Baker had been touring in Europe that year with a range of different musicians, and he extended the tour by a month in Italy with Michel Graillier (p) Massimo Moriconi (b).

For years, lousy bootlegs of this gig near the Adriatic Sea circulated but weren't worth the time. Now, Chet's son, Paul, and the Chet Baker Estate have released the performance on a two-CD set along with bonus tracks. The CD, Chet Baker Trio: Live From the Moonlight, is gloriously melodic and rich in poetry. Playing and singing were an effort for Baker at this stage in his life. Years of drug abuse and issues with his teeth had taken their toll. But his trumpet playing remained stong and his ideas were seductively lyrical.

This is one of those CDs that I thought might fall short but instead exceeded expectations. I worry when I see recordings that estates are releasing. At times, they can be of varying quality with hopes that someone will buy it. This CD isn't in that category. As it played yesterday, my mind stayed focused on my writing but my ear followed Baker wherever he went. He never lets go of your hand on this album. Trumpet notes become stairs and whispers, and solos offer melodic enticements to keep you engaged.  

The album's tracks are “Polka Dots and Moonbeams," Enrico Pieranunzi's “Night Bird," Bruce Martino's Estate, Jimmy Heath's “Dee's Dilemma," “How Deep Is the Ocean," “My Foolish Heart" and “My Funny Valentine." The bonus tracks (on the CD only) are a rehearsal of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and, from the third set, Rique Pantoja's “Arbor Way," Richard Beirach's “Broken Wings" and Miles Davis's “Down."

Perhaps the best track on the album is “Dee's Dilemma," which features Baker's powerful blowing and lines that dance around the song's glorious theme. This takes nothing away from the other tracks, all of which are worthwhile. Though there is mild distortion on the high end when Baker's power blowing overloads the microphones, none of it bothered me, and the overall sound is good. Most captivating are the stories Baker tells on his trumpet as his life was winding down and the beautiful piano playing of Michel Graillier and deep bass work by Massimo Moriconi. Aging beauty is indeed beautiful.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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