Chet Baker: Limelight Sessions


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In January 1964, trumpeter Chet Baker was arrested at the Blue Note in Berlin. Earlier, at a local pharmacy, he had foolishly tried to fill prescriptions for Jetrium from two different doctors—a sign of abuse or hoarding with an intent to sell. More commonly known as dextromoramide, Jetrium was a powerful opioid analgesic about three times as potent as morphine. After his arrest, Baker was confined to a sanitarium for just over a month. Rather than jail him the way the Italians had years earlier, Baker, in May, was driven to the Frankfurt airport and deported to the U.S. After arriving at New York's JFK airport, he was met by federal narcotics agents who searched and interrogated him. As James Gavin writes in his biography of Baker, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, one of the officers took pity on him and gave him a ride into Manhattan.

Baker's first recording after returning to the States was The Most Important Jazz Album of 1964-65, a moderately overstated album for the Colpix label that was panned by Pete Welding of Down Beat: “It's difficult to get excited over the Baker crew's rewarming of old hash." Following his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival that July with Stan Getz, Baker toured for the balance of the year.

Toward the end of the year, Baker committed to record an album for Limelight Records, a jazz division of Mercury headed by producer Jack Tracy. Recorded over three sessions in January and February 1965, Baby Breeze featured three different groups. The first date was by far the strongest and featured Chet Baker (flhrn), Frank Strozier (as,fl), Phil Urso (ts), Hal Galper (p), Michael Fleming (b) and Charlie Rice (d).

The five songs recorded by this group on January 14th were robust hard-bop pieces in the tradition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Three of the them were written by Galper (above)—Pamela's Passion, This Is the Thing and One With One. On these tracks, Baker's playing had more fire than usual, with Strozier and Urso providing fluid saxophones and Strozier adding a warm flue in places. But the standout on these tracks is Galper.

Galper's piano packed plenty of bop energy with modal touches that foreshadowed the abstract direction the keyboard would take in the fusion era to come. This is especially true on Halper's One With One, where his articulation and chord voicings are reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's moodiness during this period. The rest of Baby Breeze returns to Baker's comfort zone—romantic ballads—and features more laid-back groups. While the songs show off Baker's lyrical horn and plaintive vocals, the predictable material isn't nearly as interesting as the album's tracks with his sextet.

If you're in New York this Saturday, you can catch Hal Galper at Smalls with his quartet—alto saxophonist Nathan Bellott, bassist Dean Torrey and drummer David Frazier. The set starts at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go here.

Chet Baker died in 1988 and Phil Urso died in 2008.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Chet Baker's Baby Breeze (Limelight) here.

The album also is available at Spotify.

JazzWax clips: Here's Hal Galper's Pamela's Passion...

And here's Galper's One With One...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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