Chet Baker at the Moonlight

Aging beauty is still beautiful. For many jazz greats who recorded well into their later years, their music continued to evolve despite physical limitations. Artistic integrity and sensitivity often remained intact as expressions grew more reflective and at times melancholy. There was a new-found elegance in the music and greater emotional transparency. This was especially true of trumpeter Chet Baker in his final years.

In November 1985, three years before his death at age 58, Baker performed at the Moonlight club in Macerata on Italy’s east coast, halfway between Florence and Rome. Baker had been touring in Europe that year with a range of different musicians, and he extended the tour by a month in Italy with Michel Graillier (p) Massimo Moriconi (b).

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The album originally came out on the Italian Philology label in the late 1980s. Now, Chet’s son, Paul, and the Chet Baker Estate have reissued the recording on a two-CD set along with bonus tracks. The album, Chet Baker Trio: Live From the Moonlight, is gloriously melodic and rich in poetry. Playing and singing were an effort for Baker at this stage in life. Years of drug abuse and issues with his teeth had taken their toll. But his trumpet playing remained strong and his ideas never lost their grace or urgency, even if the effort was at times frayed around the edges.

Interestingly, this is one of those CDs that I thought might fall short but instead exceeded expectations. At times, estate-released recordings can be of varying quality, especially in an age when many estates just want to get the music out. This CD defies that logic. As it played yesterday, my ear followed Baker wherever he went on his horn. He never lets go of your hand on this album. Trumpet notes become stairs and paths, and solos pull you along.

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The album’s tracks are Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Enrico Pieranunzi’s Night Bird, Bruce Martino’s Estate, Jimmy Heath’s Dee’s Dilemma, How Deep Is the Ocean, My Foolish Heart and My Funny Valentine. The bonus tracks (on the CD only) are a rehearsal of Polka Dots and Moonbeams and, from the third set, Rique Pantoja’s Arbor Way, Richard Beirach’s Broken Wings and Miles Davis’s Down.

Perhaps the best track on the album is Dee’s Dilemma, which features Baker’s powerful blowing and lines that dance around the song’s glorious theme. This takes nothing away from the other tracks, all of which are worthy. Though there is mild distortion at times on the high end when Baker’s power overwhelms the microphones, none of it is bothersome, and the overall sound is good. Most captivating are the pained tales Baker tells with his trumpet as his life was winding down. Equally rewarding is the piano of Michel Graillier and deep bass work by Massimo Moriconi. Aging beauty is indeed beautiful.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Chet Baker Trio: Live From the Moonlight (Chet Baker Estate) here and here.

JazzWax clip: Here’s Enrico Pieranunzi’s Night Bird

Night Bird