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Chet Baker

Live in London


by Ian Mann

January 09, 2017


This double set must represent some of the best playing of Baker's later years. The success of the album also owes much to the superb contributions of the three British musicians with whom he plays.

Chet Baker

“Live in London”

(Ubuntu Music UBU0003)

As a reviewer I get sent a lot of archive material, but in view of the fact that these days it’s physically impossible to review everything that I receive very few of these re-releases actually end up getting featured on the Jazzmann.

In general this site chooses to focus on the current work of living artists, with a particular emphasis on the output of UK based musicians and labels, and especially the music of young, emerging jazz talents.

However in the case of this recently re-discovered live session by trumpeter, and sometime vocalist, Chet Baker from 1983 I’m prepared to make an exception as this two disc set has a particular resonance and relevance for British jazz audiences. 

“Live in London” documents a week long residency by Baker at the long defunct Canteen venue in Covent Garden between 28th March and 2nd April 1983, five years before the trumpeter’s mysterious death, the result of a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window.

Baker may no longer be with us but the British trio that accompanied him that week at the Canteen are and the album serves as a welcome reminder of the considerable talents of pianist John Horler, bassist Jim Richardson, and my namesake, drummer Tony Mann.

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. The bassist recently unearthed these old tapes and was pleasantly surprised to hear just how good the music sounded and this, coupled with recent advances in recording technology, encouraged him to make the pick of the performances commercially available. The audio-digital conversion, sound restoration and mastering was carried out by engineer Claudio Passavanti with Richardson producing and the finished sound is remarkably good. The resultant album has been issued with the approval of the Baker estate and its release has been widely acclaimed in British jazz circles with universally favourable reviews and an extensive feature in the December 2016/ January 2017 edition of Jazzwise magazine which contains informative interviews with Horler, Richardson and Mann plus archive comments from Baker himself.

The release comes at a time when interest in Baker and his music is high, revived in part by the recent film “Born To Be Blue”, written and directed by Robert Budreau and starring Ethan Hawke as the much troubled and ill fated Baker. Like the film “Miles Ahead” directed by and starring Don Cheadle as Miles Davis the movie isn’t a conventional biopic but instead concentrates on one period of Baker’s life, notably his recovery from a drug related beating he received in 1966 which damaged his teeth and ruined his embouchure, necessitating the need for him to learn to play the trumpet again, almost from scratch, modifying his technique accordingly. The film ends with Baker’s eventual return to public performance in a New York jazz club. The movie doesn’t shy away from Baker’s well documented heroin addiction, which continued throughout his life, but it does celebrate the courage and tenacity exhibited in his return to active playing. It’s not one hundred per cent biographically accurate but I still found it to be an enjoyable and convincing piece of cinema.

Meanwhile the Davis film is even less strictly factual, being set during Miles’ “lost” years in the 1970s when he stopped playing altogether. This allows for numerous “fantasy sequences”, including a car chase, and the film has received very mixed reviews from the specialist jazz press – in general the Baker film was judged more favourably.

Both “Miles Ahead” and “Born To Be Blue” have been screened at my local arts centre, The Courtyard in Hereford, and I enjoyed both of them. I’m no film buff but I thought that the performances of both Hawke and Cheadle were excellent, convincing and uncannily reminiscent of the real life characters they were portraying. I preferred to concentrate on the films for what they were, rather than what they were not, and didn’t get too hung up about the historical accuracy or otherwise. And of course the soundtracks to both movies were absolutely terrific with Hawke delivering some remarkably convincing Baker style vocalising. And let’s face it anything that helps to bring our music to the attention of a wider audience has to be a good thing, right? Hopefully some of the people who checked out these movies thanks to the actors involved will be encouraged to check out Baker and Davis on record, maybe starting with this one.

And so, after that lengthy aside, on with the music. Baker’s drug problems were well documented and 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.

This British trio represented one of the best groups that Baker worked with at this time. Richardson and Mann had played live and recorded with him before in 1979 and it was the bassist who telephoned Horler and invited him to lead the trio for Baker’s Canteen residency. Horler is one of my favourite mainstream pianists and he’s in great form throughout this double set, soloing in inventive fashion and accompanying Baker sympathetically and intelligently.

Given Baker’s reputation for unpredictability the three British musicians approached the week long engagement with some trepidation but they found the American to be in great form. “He seemed together” recalls Horler in the album notes, “not distracted, we even had a rehearsal”.

In Roy Carr’s Jazzwise piece 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”. Both Mann and Richardson recall him being a man of few words as the terse tune announcements attest. 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”.

As a result there’s a relaxed, informal quality about these performances as the four musicians stretch out at length on ten tunes largely sourced from the jazz standards canon. Baker was never a prolific composer and none of his own tunes feature here.

Most of the tunes are played in the head/standards/head format with the usual soloing order being Baker/ Horler / Richardson / Mann. So far so predictable but the sheer quality of the playing transcends the apparent limitations of the format. In his liner notes 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”.

Baker seems to have a particular affinity for the songs of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and the first disc commences with a lengthy exploration of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”  which features all four musicians in the order listed above. Baker’s own playing is warm, effusive and consistently inventive. He’s more than matched by the excellent Horler who shines throughout the recording and even the obligatory bass and drum features sustain the interest with Richardson impressing with his combination of a big, robust tone allied to a strong melodic sense. Elsewhere his playing is subtly propulsive and his timekeeping immaculate. He forms a good team with Mann who offers unobtrusive, high quality support throughout but grabs the opportunity with both hands on his regular drum features. 

Two more Rogers & Hart pieces turn up on the second disc, “With A Song In My Heart” and “My Funny Valentine”, the latter a tune indelibly associated with Baker. The latter is one of three vocal pieces to be heard on this set, the others being the Ray Noble song “The Touch Of Your Lips” and Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You”. All of these feature Baker’s uniquely fragile, bruised and vulnerable voice, an unconventional instrument capable of generating considerable emotion. “Valentine” came to be something of a cliché for Baker and “ I Remember” includes some gratuitous scatting,  hence I prefer his vocal on “The Touch Of Your Lips” which is frail, plaintive and hugely affecting. The piece also includes some of the quartet’s most lyrical playing of the set with Baker’s vibrato-less trumpet followed by solos from Horler and Richardson as Mann adds tastefully brushed support.

Elsewhere Horler dazzles at the piano and Mann really rattles the tubs on a boppish race through Jimmy Heath’s “For Minors Only” which features some of Baker’s most thrillingly agile trumpet playing, no question marks over his technique here.

Mining a similar seam is “Margarine”, pianist Hal Galper’s re-working of the standard “Tangerine” which closes side one and again includes some of Baker’s most mercurial playing as the trio swing furiously behind him with Horler impressing with his wry wit and invention on his own solo and Mann weighing in with a ferocious drum salvo.

For me the two best performances of the set are of pieces from outside the usual standards canon of the time. Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” has become something of a modern classic but was less well known in the 80s and the tune’s harmonic structure gives Baker and his colleagues plenty to get their teeth into.

But best off all is their interpretation of pianist Richie Beirach’s “Leaving”, a Latin flavoured ballad that Richardson himself has selected as a personal highlight, citing Baker’s solo here as the best of the entire set. The leader’s own playing is gorgeous, his velvety tone complemented by the tasteful and lyrical playing of his colleagues. 

“Live in London” has been universally praised by the UK jazz media and its very welcome appearance represents a highly significant slice of British jazz history. Baker was recorded frequently but this double disc must represent some of the best playing of his later years and the success of the album also owes much to the superb contributions of the three British musicians with whom he plays. Horler, Richardson and Mann offer the leader great support but they also find plenty to say on their own account, one never gets the impression that they’re either carrying Baker or being dictated to by him. Overall it sounds like a remarkably organic and well balanced ensemble.

Despite being moth-balled for over thirty years the music still sounds remarkably fresh and even the background noise that occasionally intervenes only serves to enhance the atmosphere of what was obviously a series of electric club performances.

“Live in London” represents one of the most significant British jazz re-releases of 2016. Let’s hope that its success will also encourage listeners to check out the solo careers of Horler, Richardson and Mann, all of whom emerge with enormous credit.

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