Album Review: Chet Baker — Early Chet

If you’re inclined that way, you can take issue with the title of Early Chet: Chet Baker in Germany 1955-1959. By ’55, the renowned trumpeter had already risen to some level of fame in his native USA. He played with Charlie Parker in 1952, and by 1955 he had a tidy stack of releases under his own name. But viewed against the arc of his recording career (1952-1988), this eleven-track set does fall toward the beginning.

Typical of Jazzhaus’ releases, Early Chet presents heretofore unheard sessions in surprisingly blemish-free audio quality. Opening with Benny Goodman‘s “Lullaby in Rhythm,” Chet Baker is backed here by the hard-charging Orchester Kurt Edelhagen. It’s uncharacteristically uptempo; Baker was known mostly (if not exclusively) for softer, more romantic fare.

And that’s what he delivers on “I’ll Remember April,” from the same March 1956 studio session that yielded the opening cut. Caterina Valente sings while Baker and band provide understated backing. On Cole Porter‘s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” Baker is once again showcased with big band accompaniment; it’s an effective synthesis of his romantic delivery in a large ensemble setting. On “Everything Happens to Me” and “Baker ’56,” the band swings behind the trumpet player; his playing is clear, enunciated and lyrical. The first side of the vinyl LP closes with “It Never Entered My Mind,” a soulful reading of the Richard Rodgers tune, from a second ’56 session with Edelhagen’s orchestra.

The second side kicks off with the sole number featuring Baker’s Quartet, performing “Bockhanal.” It’s a nice change of pace from the big band selections, but in the end it’s the latter that are the most interesting. The remainder of the disc features Baker backed by the Tanzorchester des Sudwestfunks in a session from 1959. That set focuses mostly on standards, including Rodgers’ “Isn’t it Romantic?” (Answer: yes.) and Jimmy Van Heusen‘s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” The string-centric orchestra here is a bit syrupy, but Baker’s playing – accented with brief solo spots from clarinetists and such – enlivens things a bit.

With so many of jazz’s greats long gone, it’s a gift to modern-day listeners to hear these long-lost recordings from German TV and radio sessions. Early Chet is another worthy entry in Jazzhaus’ highly-regarded “Lost Tapes” series.

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