Between March 28 and April 2 in 1983, Chet Baker appeared at the Canteen in London. By then, the club's space at 4 Great Queen St. in Covent Garden was something of a landmark. From 1979 to 1981, it was the Blitz, a wine bar where British pop's New Romantic movement was launched. So it was only fitting that three years later, Chet Baker, an old romantic, appeared under the same roof for six nights. He was backed by a superb local rhythm section—John Horler on piano, Jim Richardson on bass and Tony Mann on drums.
Last December, tracks recorded at the club during the run were released on Chet Baker: Live in London (Ubuntu) with permission from the Baker estate. I missed the album's release, so I'm glad Martin Hummel, its executive producer and the director of the Ubuntu Management Group in London, which owns Ubuntu Music, brought it to my attention.
Throughout this stay at the club, Baker sat on the right side of the stage in profile to the audience. Visually, Baker had issues. His one-time East of Eden looks and physique had been scarred by decades of anxiety, drug abuse, pain, prison and other life-weathering episodes. Yet his trumpet on the album was resilient and ambitious, offering up an understated, spry tone.
Most of the time, Baker's playing was gently taut a bit fuzzy, as if his trumpet had a cold. But the improvised lines he blew were fluid and complete, with every ounce of his soul behind them. There's no coasting here. The only horn that ever sounded this wax-papery and deliberate was Miles Davis's.
Interestingly, this album has no high points. Every track is a marvel, from Have You Met Miss Jones and Sam Rivers's Beatrice to With a Song in My Heart and Hal Galper's Margarine. Even Baker's singing is fascinating on The Touch of Your Lips, I Remember You and My Funny Valentine. It's flawed, like a scratched antique cabinet or a broken toy. Yet there's beauty for those who can hear it. Kudus to this wonderful trio. Their rock-solid foundation certainly inspired Baker and provided him in places with a musical shoulder to lean on. And speaking of beauty, the album's cover features one of my favorite images of Baker taken by Chris Lewis.
There are only so many notes a musician can play—12 in all. And yet Baker manages to pick out the most beautiful ones when assembling his brass flower arrangements. His note selections are tender and sensitive, with an assertive romanticism.
JazzWax clip: Here's Beatrice, a masterpiece by any measure....
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