Picks and Pans Review: Let's Get Lost

updated 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Chet Baker

Chet Baker first made an impression on the jazz scene in 1952, when saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker chose him to be his sideman on trumpet for a Los Angeles nightclub gig. "You better watch out," Bird is said to have told Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, his bebop brothers in New York. "There's a white cat on the West Coast who's gonna eat you up."

Baker, then 23, was the epitome of California cool. Dubbed the James Dean of jazz because of his greased-back good looks, he had a sultry feel for melody as both a trumpeter and singer. He made bobby-soxers swoon. As time carved at his pretty-boy features, however, Baker bartered away his promise as a musician, carrying on a love affair with heroin and cocaine. He was found dead in May 1988, at 59, outside a seedy hotel in Amsterdam. It remains a mystery whether he fell out of his second-floor room in a stupor or was pushed because of a drug deal gone awry.

Let's Get Lost, the sound track to a documentary-film portrait of Baker by photographer Bruce Weber, was recorded during the last months of his life. Both on trumpet and vocals, Baker's phrasing is slack and his tone languid as he lurches through such romantic classics as "Imagination" and "My One and Only Love." Even so, Baker casts a strangely seductive spell. Listen to his sinuous rendition of "Blame It on My Youth," sung with the aplomb of an aging gigolo wrapped in a moth-eaten cloak of vulnerability and innocence.

Baker's intensity and eerie sensuality make Let's Get Lost as good an introduction as any to his music. But his tonal refinement and ability to reshape a melody are better heard in recent reissues of his earlier albums.

Much of Baker's seminal work as a young man with a horn is available by mail from Mosaic Records (35 Melrose PL, Stamford, Conn. 06902). One exquisite Mosaic boxed set documents the introverted, coolly elegiac trumpeter's collaboration in the early '50s with the extroverted, blowsy baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. On two other Mosaic sets, Baker joins pianist Russ Freeman, an exemplar of breezy West Coast bop.

Chet in Paris: Everything Happens to Me (EmArcy) shows Baker at the peak of his trumpet skills, in 1955. Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You (Riverside), circa 1958, features his whispery lyricism as a crooner still intoxicated with the sweet scent of success. On The Best Thing for You (A&M), marking a 1977 comeback effort, he is unusually assertive in the company of such greats as saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter.

Relying entirely on intuition, Baker never read music well or bothered to perfect his technique. But his capacity for conveying intimacy made his technical skills largely irrelevant. Listening to his music can be as heartrending as remembering the short-lived beauty and fragrance of a cut flower whose petals have been delicately preserved between the pages of an old book. (RCA/Novus)

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