Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker Jr. had movie-star good looks, a breathy, spine-tingling singing voice, and produced a warm melancholy sound on the trumpet. He was an enormously gifted musician who, for almost his entire adult life, put getting high on heroin above everything else. Chet never had a bank account; he always kept all of his money, no matter how much it was, in a money belt he never took off.
He was born into a musical family in Oklahoma and raised in California, and his first break came when he played with Charlie Parker during his tour of the West Coast in 1951. Baker subsequently joined the Gerry Mulligan Quintet, and his solo with them on “My Funny Valentine” became his signature. By 1954, Baker had won the Down Beat Jazz Poll, beating out Miles Davis, and he soon formed his own group, which became central to the creation of the West Coast cool jazz sound. Then Baker’s addiction got the better of him, and years of trouble followed.
Baker died in the early morning hours of May 13, 1988, in Amsterdam. He either fell or more likely jumped from a second-storey window at the Prinz Hendrik Hotel after bingeing on pure cocaine. He was fifty-eight years old.
Amazon.com lists 251 CDs under Chet Baker’s name, and therein lies a problem. Many of the recordings are of dodgy quality, because Baker recorded quickly and frequently when he needed money to get high. In his later years, he signed away the rights to many of his albums for small cash advances. Since his death, his estate has been diligent in initiating legal action against record companies they feel took advantage of him.
The Last Great Concert: My Favourite Songs, Vols. I & II [Justin Time #8425/6-2] is not one of those quickie albums. Recorded on April 28, 1988, in Hanover, Germany, it features Baker accompanied by sixty-one musicians from the NDR Big Band and the Hanover Radio Orchestra.
This us a beautifully balanced CD of fourteen selections spread over two discs. The old sad standards, such as “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” come to life; he makes them his own again. His version of “My Funny Valentine” is breathtaking. The notes flow softly and gently from his trumpet. His voice is frail. Although no one knew it at the time, the concert was his own farewell tribute. Two weeks later he was found dead on the sidewalk in Amsterdam.