Chet Baker was many things: trumpeter, singer, junkie, icon. But the most important label, and the only one that really matters, is artist. Baker was one of the few musicians who could break your heart every time you listened to him play. His buttery tone and beautiful phrasing exemplified the best of the West Coast school of jazz. Baker’s compelling talent and charismatic presence is shown to its fullest in this superb Jazz Icons DVD, which presents the late trumpeter in two performance settings filmed 15 years apart. Leading off is a 1964 Belgian television special that finds him in the company of several leading European musicians: French pianist Rene Urtreger, Belgian saxophonist Jacques Pelzer, and an Italian rhythm section comprised of bassist Luigi Trussardi and drummer Franco Manzecchi. The softly lit studio space enhances the intimate, after-hours ambience as Baker and his group tear through spirited versions of “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Airegin,” explore the emotional terrain of “Isn’t it Romantic” and “Time After Time,” and finish up with an all-too-brief, oh-so-cool version of the Miles Davis classic “So What.” The high point of the set is Baker’s vocal on the ballad “Time After Time.” His singing, like his trumpet playing, was simple, pure and unforgettable. Every note seemed to channel all the pain and frustration of his personal life. By the time of this 1979 Norway concert performance, Baker’s once angelic features had eroded and hardened due to the ravages of dope and time, yet he still played with a lyricism that put Gabriel and his trumpet to shame. In fact, his playing had more depth and texture than ever. Baker seems inspired and energized by his band of young, forward-looking musicians—pianist Michel Graillier, bassist Jean Louis Rassinfosse and vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid. The trumpeter’s hauntingly beautiful solos blend seamlessly with the slightly more out improvisations of the youngsters. Calmly seated at the front of the stage, Baker spins out a seemingly inexhaustible flow of inspired phrases as he works through familiar favorites like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Love for Sale,” as well as an intriguing original by Lackerschmid that takes jazz into chamber music territory. Watching this precious archival footage is like experiencing a musical clinic in dynamics, swing and emotion. Or, to sum it up in a single word, artistry.
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