Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Fine Young Cannibal

Somewhere in the throne room of the Beautiful Loser Hall of fame there sits a double-sided bust of one Chet Baker, with whatever trumpet he had in his possession at the time of his death in 1988 lying nearby. The bust is finely etched, one side the profile of a farm fed Okie kid with alabaster features and the look of a dreamy angel, aglow with a future sparkling with promises, the other side craggy, dissolute and ravaged--a dope fiend’s visage, collapsed and pummeled by time. Bruce Weber’s Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost was initially released in 1988 to a heady mix of consternation and disinterest. Photographed in luminescent black and white, the movie goes for the obvious in one way-juxtaposing the simple visual contrast of the early china doll-meets-boxer Baker look with the then ancient 57-year-old wastrel, yet it pulls the rug out by refusing to do the straight docu route, being short on performance footage and factual narration, spending an inordinate amount time following the nearly comatose Baker around Santa Monica in the company of unconnected hepcats like Flea, Lisa Marie, and Chris Issak. Newly reissued, the movie is something of a minor revelation. It now seems apparent that Weber’s intention all along, in lieu of piecing together a flesh and blood tale (a virtually impossible task with the vampiric, contradictory, ever drifting Baker), Let’s Get Lost (click on link)is an extended riff, a blast of cinematic impressionism, a deconstructed look at the dirty dreams of showbiz. As one of Baker’s jazz cats later commented in author James Gavin’s excellent Deep In a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, the movie is perfect because Chet’s lying about everybody and everybody’s lying about Chet, epitomizing his work and life in a movie-nutshell. If you can catch this in a theater during its limited re-release, do it up.

1 comment:

Charlie Drago said...

There is much to learn about Chesney that you won't find in "Deep in a Dream" and that is only -- and poetically -- hinted at in "Let's Get Lost."

First and foremost, and despite the canards to the contrary that are regurgitated by his multitude of detractors, Chet Baker was an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished trumpet player with a sound that in its evanescent totality was much greater than its parts.


When the stars were aligned -- which is to say when Chet was physically and emotionally capable of playing and of a mind to do so -- no one did it better.


Yes, there were long entre-actes in which dissipation trumped syncopation, and the resulting recordings aren't worth their weight in used syringes.

The problem with "Deep in a Dream" is that one never gets the sense that the biography's subject was a professional trumpet player who produced world-class music.

I'm fortunate to own 91 Baker LPs and another two dozen or so CDs, and there aren't more than a half-dozen that I'd be content to do without.

From the sparkling creations of an extended rookie season (the sainted Pacific Jazz sides), through 1960s outbursts of hard bop intensity (the five simply masterful LPs with George Coleman on Prestige -- more on these in just a bit) and the better efforts of his many mid-period European sojourns and domestic turns (for the latter, it's "Once Upon a Summertime" with doomed soulmate Gregory Herbert, on the late, lamented Artists House), to the utter masterpieces of September ("Little Girl Blue", on Philology and "Soft Journey" with Enrico Pieranunzi, on EDI-Pan jump to mind), Baker made it plain that he took a back seat to no one.

The sessions with tenor saxophonist George Coleman are out of print on CD. During a Providence gig some years back, George told me how it went down.

"We'd go into the studio and just play until Chet's chops gave out," he said. "We recorded on and off for days, and near the end Chet and I were thinking together.

"Do you know that little figure we play at the end of 'Cherokee'?" George asked. I did, and I do -- at tempo, in unison, for all appearances a mega-hip written line.

"It came out spontaneously. And we just looked at each other."

The quote about Chet being untruthful throughout "Let's Get Lost" is attributed to the splendid pianist Hal Galper, and to the best of my ability to judge, it is indeed accurate.

Those of us who love Chet wouldn't have it any other way.

More to tell, but I'll end with the ending. Chet was found on an Amsterdam Street, beneath the upper storey window of his hotel room. His final fall from grace (or defenestration, if you prefer) was, well, gooey, and it prompted any number of apocryphal endgame accounts.

Chet was fucked up and thought he was diving into a pool.

Chet was thrown out the window by drug dealers he had burned.

Not so much.

Bob Mover, the most underrated and absurdly gifted alto saxophonist of his generation (born in 1952), was with Chet on many memorable European tours (recorded examples are few and far between; three bootleg sides on Circle, another on Esoldun, all worth the search), told me what I accept as the true story.

"Chet thought he was a cat burgler," Bob said. "He used to beat the tab at hotels all the time. They'd lock him out of his room, but he'd climb the side of the building, go in through the window, and get his horn and clothes."

The window on his last hotel, in Amsterdam, proved a tad trickier to negotiate than the bridge on "Cherokee."

Charlie Drago