…Even at the end of his troubled life, Baker didn’t lose his chops or his ability to move the listener with the sheer beauty of his sound.

Dot Time Records DT8021

Wolfgang Lackerschmid (vibraphone); Chet Baker (trumpet); Nicola Stilo (flute, guitar); Günter Lenz (bass); guest musicians: Rocky Knauer (bass); Peri dos Santos (guitar); Edir dos Santos (drums)

Recorded Loya Studio, Stuttgart, Germany August 1987

The rise, fall and rise of trumpeter Chet Baker has been well chronicled. Bursting onto the jazz scene in the early fifties, he seemed to have it all – film star looks, an abundance of talent, with a trumpet sound that was sparse, light and lyrical. Baker was dubbed ‘The Prince of Cool,’ played with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and forged a dazzling musical partnership with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

He would go onto win the best trumpeter award in major jazz polls, ahead of Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (almost forty years on, Baker topping the DownBeat poll still rankled Miles; his autobiography listed it in the index and Miles accused white musicians like Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and Baker of ‘ripping off black music.’). But then there was the descent, triggered by a heroin addiction. In the mid-1960s, Baker’s teeth were smashed (some say by an angry drug dealer) and he had to develop a new embouchure.

The 1980s were something of a renaissance for Baker. He based himself in Europe, toured more and even guested on Elvis Costello’s song ‘Shipbuilding.’ (Baker would subsequently play another Costello tune – ‘Almost Blue’ – in concert, and a gig at Ronnie Scott’s included Van Morrison and Costello). Baker also teamed up with the young German vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid (who was 23 when they first recorded together). This is their third album. The first, Ballads for Two, was released in 1979 and featured just the two musicians. The fragile beauty of the tune ‘Five Years Ago’ never fails to move me. Their second album had a quintet line-up that included Larry Coryell on guitar, Buster Williams, bass and Tony Williams, drums.

This album consists of trios, quartets, a quintet and a sextet, and all eight tunes (there are nine tracks, including two takes of the title track) have been composed by Lackerschmid. The recording session was by all accounts a relaxed affair (the liner notes state that the studio had an open fire burning during the sessions, and that if you listen carefully, you can hear the crackling wood) and this vibe is certainly reflected in the band’s performances. The session took place less than a year before Baker’s mysterious death at the age of 58, when he was found lying on the pavement outside his hotel, having fallen from his two-storey room.

Both Baker and Lackerschmid play with great sensitivity and the soundscapes they create are light and spacious – every note counts. The opening title track is a jolly, upbeat number with a trio line-up – trumpet and vibraphone are joined by Rocky Knauer on bass. On ‘Christmas Waltz’ the trio becomes a quartet, with Nicola Stilo’s flute adding some sweetness to the sound. There are two Latin numbers –  ‘Gloria’s Answer’ and ‘Volta Trais’ which include Peri dos Santos (guitar) and Edir dos Santos (drums).

There are so many examples of Baker’s fine playing on this album. Listen to the gorgeous ballad ‘Pitztal Daybreak’ and the delightful flurry of notes Baker plays at 2:16, or the haunting ballad ‘Why Shouldn’t You Cry.’ ‘Waltz For Berlin’ (which also appeared on the 2005 compilation album Why Shouldn’t You Cry, although it’s unclear if that was an official release) shows the relaxed side of this hot vibrant, bustling city, with Baker’s soft, silky tone and Lackerschmid’s tinkling vibraphone drifting like a cloud slowly moving across the sky.

The album ends with an alternate take of ‘Welcome Back,’ this time bolstered by bass and flute. It’s a pleasant rendition, but the sparser version shows how less can mean more. When you listen to this album you appreciate that even at the end of his troubled life, Baker didn’t lose his chops or his ability to move the listener with the sheer beauty of his sound.

Reviewed by George Cole