by Ian Mann
December 31, 2018
These performances still sound fresh and exciting more than thirty years on and are a welcome addition to Baker’s voluminous recorded legacy.
“Live In London Volume II”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0014)
One of the most celebrated archive recordings of 2017 was “Live in London”, a double set featuring the music of the late trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker (1929-88).
Released on the then fledgeling Ubuntu Music record label the recording represented the highlights from a six night residency that Baker played at the now defunct Canteen jazz venue in Covent Garden between 28th March and 2nd April 1983. He was joined by an excellent British trio led by pianist John Horler and featuring Jim Richardson on double bass and Tony Mann at the drums.
It was Richardson who had the good sense to record the quartet’s performances on a Sony TCS 300 cassette recorder, initially for his own private use. Over the years the bassist has shared the results with others who had been in the audience during what was generally agreed to have been a superb residency and many encouraged him to make the music commercially available.
This eventually came about more than thirty years after the event when Richardson met Martin Hummel late one night in Ronnie Scott’s. An American long resident in London Hummel had recently launched his Ubuntu Music imprint describing it as “an incubator label” dedicated to “helping artists bring their music to audiences”. In the main this has been the work of young, emerging British artists such as saxophonist Camilla George or the group Flying Machines but Hummel felt that the Baker recordings fell within his label’s remit and the original “Live in London” album was among Ubuntu’s earliest releases and did much to put the new label on the map. Co-founded by Hummel and trumpeter Quentin Collins Ubuntu is emerging as a major British jazz independent alongside the likes of Edition and Whirlwind.
Hummel’s liner notes reference the technical challenges encountered in bringing the quality of Richardson’s essentially home recordings up to commercial standard. This task was brilliantly undertaken by engineer Claudio Passavanti of Sunlightsquare Studios in London with Richardson acting as producer.
The sound quality on both of the “Live in London” recordings is remarkably good and both albums have been released with the blessing of the Chet Baker Estate.
Baker is often regarded as a tragic figure, a long term heroin addict who had had to re-learn his instrument following severe facial injuries suffered in a drug related beating. In his later years he was a frequent visitor to Europe, playing with pick up bands at venues right across the continent, his fees directly supporting his drug habit.
However it is generally agreed that the Baker who visited the Canteen in 1983 was at the peak of his form at a comparatively late stage in his career. He performs with a remarkable fluency and assurance and was given terrific support by a highly capable and empathic British trio, with both Richardson and Mann having previously worked with the trumpeter in 1979.
Recalling the Canteen sessions Richardson says;
“While he was not in the best physical shape, Chet’s playing was commensurate with his reputation as a great jazz artist – passion, tenderness and downright aggressive swing, it’s all there in the music. I have a huge quantity of Chet Baker recordings, but what we have here is the best, in my opinion”.
In the notes for the first “Live In London” album Horler commented “he seemed together, not distracted, we even had a rehearsal”.
Tony Mann remembers Baker looking both unwell and unkempt and remaining seated throughout the performances but crucially “he was content and played like an angel”. Mann also adds “he didn’t tell us what to play, for example whether he wanted sticks or brushes. There was a trust in our competence and our experience as musicians”.
The format of this second Canteen recording is the same as that of the original “Live in London” album with Baker and his colleagues again stretching out at length over the course of ten jazz and bebop standards. Baker was never a prolific composer and none of his own tunes feature here.
The album commences with the quartet’s version of “Strollin’”, written by the prolific pianist and composer Horace Silver. Baker states the theme with an assured fluency before embarking on the opening solo. Sebastian Scotney of London Jazz News, who was actually lucky enough to have been at The Canteen when this music was recorded recalls; “I remember being surprised by how assertive Baker’s playing was, how fluent and strong the melodic lines were”. There’s plenty of evidence to support that comment here. As on the earlier release the soloing order is generally Baker / Horler /Richardson/ Mann and the pianist comes up with a colourful and richly imaginative statement here. He’s followed by the warm tones of Richardson, who demonstrates a strong melodic sensibility and great dexterity at the bass.
The first “Live in London” release featured a superb version of pianist/composer Richie Beirach’s Latin-esque ballad “Leaving”, arguable the best performance of the entire set. Baker evidently had an affinity for Beirach’s writing and the pianist’s “Broken Wing” is another affecting ballad performance that again features some of Baker’s best and most emotive playing. Horler matches him with a solo that impresses with its flowing inventiveness. Initially inspired by Bill Evans the underrated Horler has long been one of the UK’s best mainstream piano soloists. Richardson also makes another memorable contribution from the bass and Mann drums with great sensitivity and acumen throughout.
Baker is also well known for his distinctive vocalising, his fragile but richly emotive voice seemingly a reflection of the vulnerability stemming from his drug dependency. The jazz standard “My Ideal” features a vocal that sounds even more bruised and plaintive than on the three vocal pieces heard on “Volume 1 “. The singing is despatched fairly early on but Baker follows this with a soft, breathy trumpet solo that embodies very similar qualities. Horler embraces a similar lyricism with his piano solo, while also adding a pleasing degree of colour and detail. Richardson’s bass solo is deep toned and warmly melodic and presages a gently haunting vocal reprise from Baker.
Another widely covered standard, “Stella by Starlight”, raises the tempo and features some of Baker’s most animated soloing to date. Richardson and Mann provide a crisp and easy swing which also fuels a sparkling solo from Horler. The piece also includes features for Richardson and Mann, the latter enjoying a brisk, but colourful, series of drum breaks.
Unaccompanied trumpet introduces the quartet’s take on “Down”, composed by Baker’s contemporary, Miles Davis. The two trumpeters were allegedly rivals but Baker clearly had a healthy respect for Davis’ work and his blues inflected solo here combines a slow burning intensity with a still considerable technical facility. Horler’s solo is relaxed but swinging. The consistently excellent Richardson weighs in with another thoroughly engaging bass feature and there’s a series of extended exchanges between Mann, Horler and Baker, with the drummer really rattling the tubs.
The second disc commences with a take on Herbie Hancock’s modern day standard “Dolphin Dance”. Baker is at his most imperious with a supremely fluent theme statement and opening solo.
Horler, too solos with an expansive fluency, as does Richardson at the bass, before Baker takes over once more.
Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is presented in a languid ballad arrangement that features some of Baker’s most tender and emotive playing. He’s given wonderfully sympathetic support by the trio with Horler at his most flowingly lyrical on his own solo. Richardson’s richly melodic bass feature is a further highlight.
“Play the intro, John”, drawls Baker at the start of “When I fall In Love”. This is the cue for Baker’s second vocal number, his rendition of the familiar lyrics world weary but still inescapably bruised, fragile and vulnerable. His subsequent trumpet solo possesses a quiet majesty while the subsequent features for Horler and Richardson combine great lyricism with an effortless fluency. Mann is a gently supportive presence throughout while Baker again reprises his opening vocal.
There’s an understated joyousness about Baker’s playing on “Dear Old Stockholm”, a quality that’s also reflected in the solos of Horler and Richardson, with the pianist in particularly ebullient form.
The closing “Just Friends” begins and ends with a brief vocal, but it’s the agility of Baker’s bop inspired trumpet soloing that really catches the ear on one of the album’s more energetic offerings. Horler is similarly irrepressible as he stretches out thrillingly at the piano. Appropriately there are also features for bass and drums, as the contributions of both Richardson and Mann to the success of these quartet performances should never be underestimated.
Inevitably the arrival of “Chet Baker Live In London Vol. 2” can’t quite have the seismic impact of its predecessor but anybody who enjoyed the first recording will also get a great deal of enjoyment from this second offering. Once again there’s a genuine chemistry between Baker and his British colleagues with Horler, Richardson and Mann combining to bring the best out of their leader while also acquitting themselves superbly in the process, with the pianist and bassist both contributing a series of brilliant solos.
The cleaning up of the original cassette tape recordings has obviously been a labour of love and we will have to wait and see whether a third volume will eventually emerge. There’s no repeat items on the first two releases but presumably there must have been tunes that were played multiple times during the residency so it must depend on how much fresh material is left in the vaults.
Nevertheless Jim Richardson, Martin Hummel and Claudio Passavanti are to be congratulated for bringing this richly rewarding music to the world. These performances still sound fresh and exciting more than thirty years on and are a welcome addition to Baker’s voluminous recorded legacy.
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