Chet Baker: La Voce


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My favorite tracks of Chet Baker singing aren't in English. They're in Italian, and they were recorded in Rome in 1962 with the Ennio Morricone Orchestra.

Yes, that Ennio Morricone, the composer of music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and more than 400 movies since 1959. But before Morricone expanded into metallic guitars, mournful harmonicas, high-plains whistlers and tonal textures, he was a cinematic traditionalist, writing rich, romantic scores that made full use of string sections, brass and the piano. The meeting of Ennio and Chet in 1962 was a sublime encounter and couldn't have come at a better time for both artists.

Today, many Chet Baker fans aren't even aware these four Italian sides exist. For one, the sides weren't released in the U.S. until the early 2000s. For another, when most listeners reach for Baker, they usually grab his work with Gerry Mulligan or his singing sessions with Russ Freeman. For me, these four Italian tracks are in the same league.

A little background. In August 1960, Baker, already addicted to heroin, was arrested in Lucca, Italy, for forging Palfium prescriptions and for smuggling huge quantities of Jetrium into Italy from Germany. Both drugs were and are pain killers. Baker was convicted of drug smuggling and forgery, and sentenced to a year, seven months and 10 days in a Lucca prison.

When Baker was released early, in December 1961, RCA Italiana put him together with Ennio Morricone. In 1962, they recorded four of Chet's own composition that he wrote during his jail term. These tracks then were released in Italy on two extended play, 7-inch, 45 rpm records. RCA's goal was to capitalize on Baker's American movie-star looks and his new bad-boy, ribelle senza una causa reputation.

James Gavin, in his 2002 book, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, touches on this unique recording date:

“[Chet] didn't get everything he wanted. By now, Dino De Laurentiis had lost interest in making a film out of Baker's life. Despite the money he had earned from the producer, the trumpeter was furious and went on to call the incident, 'The Great Movie Hoax.' But he cashed in on his prison compositions when RCA Italiana paid him ten thousand dollars for a one-year record contract. The label hoped to capitalize on his notoriety by making him a pop star; to that end, he was asked to cut four vocal sides in Italian with an orchestra conducted by Ennio Morricone, the famed composer [who would go on to record numerous] 'spaghetti western' soundtracks. The songs came from Baker's red-leather songbook, with words added by Pino Maffei, founder of Musica Jazz magazine.

Swaddled in a blanket of strings and voices, Baker crooned of the sweetness of love and of endless nights without his beloved. He sounded more childlike than ever, his soft choirboy's high notes seeming to float from the purest heart."

Given Morricone's renown in Italy at the time and Baker's tragic persona, you would think these sessions were originally recorded for a movie soundtrack. So I checked to see what films  Morricone scored in 1962. Five films popped up—La Cuccagna, Diciottenni Al Sole, I Motorizzati, Before the Revolution and La Voglia Matta. What these titles mean in English doesn't matter, because virtually all of them are a variation on the same theme popular then—young love, fate and the downside of upward mobility. Baker's recordings with Morricone could have worked for any or all of them.

Film score or no film score, these four ballads by Baker are so impossibly pretty and decadent. They're like four Italian pastries with crunch and cream. But their beauty is a collaboration of three forces—Baker's wide open trumpet playing, his tourist's Italian on the vocals and Morricone's satiny Hollywood-ola scores.

Chetty's Lullaby, which Chet wrote for his son, opens with a rich bed of French horns and trombones, inhaling and exhaling as Baker's trumpet soars over strings. Then Baker sings in Italian—in the most fragile, delicate plaintive voice. He almost sounds as if he's consulting a map while asking for directions. And Morricone's orchestration is quivering and innocent.

On the flip side of Chetty's Lullaby was So Che Ti Perdero, which opens with shimmering strings, followed by piano, guitar, trombones and more strings. There's even a vocal choir singing in Italian behind Baker.

Motivo Su Raggio Di Luna has a minor feel—again with vocal choir, strings, French horns and trombones Baker is almost talking in Italian here, sotto voce. Halfway through the tune, the pace quickens and Baker sounds a lot like Miles on his Gil Evans dates.

Il Mio Domani is my favorite of the four tracks. It opens with a gaggle of horns performing a call and response with a celeste and drum brushes on cymbals (pure Morricone!). Then Baker's trumpet wanders over the top of violins. A piano enters, brass are added, followed by the celeste, cellos and violas. A vocal choir drifts in and the song builds to a crescendo with the brass, only to fall back suddenly, exposing the celeste yet again. Half-way through, the tempo doubles as Baker sings with the Italian choir and a piano slips into the background.

While these tracks may not be his greatest jazz performances ever recorded, they are beautiful and exotic works by Baker nonetheless. If you're a Chet Baker fan, you're a romantic. And if you're a romantic, then what more could you ask for than for Baker at his seductive best singing ballads in Italian? Not to mention playing an open trumpet on top of Italian cinematic strings. I only wish Baker and Morricone had recorded an entire album.

JazzWax tracks: These four songs can be found on Chet Is Back here, where they were included as bonus tracks.

You'll also find Chet Is Back at Spotify.

JazzWax clips: Here are the four sides of two 45s...

Here's Chetty's Lullaby...

Here's So Che Ti Perderò...

Here's Motivo Su Raggio Di Luna...

And here's Il Mio Domani...

If you want a visual and audio taste of Chet Baker's romantic Italian period, go here and dig him singing Arrivederci...

It's from an Italian film called Urlatori alla Sbarra (1960), which was part of a genre known as musicarello—Italian musical comedies that included current stars singing their hits. Sort of the early 1960s equivalent of a music video.

Clearly this is the sound RCA had hoped to achieve and recreate by teaming Baker with Morricone.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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