Chet Baker may still be a controversial figure. It certainly took a long time for me to make up my mind about him. When I was exposed to jazz in the mid-Fifties, it was as a fan of robust hard bop, musicians like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. The popular West Coast jazz of that time seemed to lack vigor and as a whole was less progressive. Baker was suspect because his trumpet playing was so quiet and introverted; it seemed to lack strength. But after listening to him for years I had to admit that he had a rich melodic imagination, putting his solos together smoothly and swinging gracefully. I grew to like his small, velvety tone, and eventually came to the conclusion that he was an original and admirable performer. The recordings on this 3-CD set, cut 1952-57, catch Baker at his peak, when he was one of the most in-demand jazzmen in the world. Interestingly, the first CD features his singing; he may've been an even more popular vocalist than trumpeter. He specialized in shy ballad performances, displaying an unusually high voice. He articulated lyrics clearly and with heartfelt emotion. His choice of tunes was interesting, too; here he sings some lovely, seldom-heard songs like "Grey December" and "Let's Get Lost." On the second CD, Baker appears as a group leader; on the third he's featured as a sideman, playing with Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Bobby Timmons, Stan Getz, and Russ Freeman. They improvise near the top of their games, as does Baker, contributing darting, quicksilver work at medium- and up-tempos and warm ballad solos. Overall, this is both a strong introduction to Chet Baker as well as a fine sampling of West Coast cool jazz.
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