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Live at Ronnie Scotts [DVD] by Chet Baker

I can think of few sights more pathetic (as in "stirring pathos") than the image that opens this otherwise run of the mill DVD. As the lights rise on this hour long set from one night in 1986 at the London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s, we are treated with a final few preparatory glimpses of Chet Baker’s ravaged visage. An eerie blue light from offstage only serves to highlight the battle his features have waged with the passage of time: the sunken pockets in place of cheeks, the wrinkles that slice like scars, the eyebrows jutting out to shade otherwise vacant eyes, and the tired, barely moistened lips trying desperately to will themselves to position and tender their way through one more tragic and hopeful night of this jazz life. Only fifty-seven (two years before his mysterious death), Baker wears the skeletal mask of a man thirty years his senior. If this is jazz, let me out.

Unfortunately, the music that transpires doesn’t tell too much of a different story. Frequently short of breath, Baker tentatively steps a path through ten or so standards, sticking close to melodies and playing short phrases with a side order of airiness. He is joined only by an unidentified piano and bass player, who evince much of what was worst in mid-1980’s bebop: mechanical rhythms, a light-handed touch, a file of tired phrases, and a dreaded (and ubiquitous) amplified bass sound. The group mainly adheres to this unimaginative formula, except for on "Love for Sale," which instead becomes an Eighties-ish attempt to flex the funk solely through a string of syncopated and flatted thirds and sevenths - imagine James Brown, played by that robot from the movie "Short Circuit."

Elvis Costello joins the group on two tunes, "The Very Thought of You" and "You Don’t Know What Love Is." His studied attempts to "cr-oo-oo-oo-n" must have thrilled the teased-hair audience’s studied attempts to outhip one another - "’E’s quite soulful, mate.... " Although I’m obliged to mention that his flattened articulations rest far more appealingly than Baker’s two (mercifully) short entries on vocals - "Just Friends" and "My Ideal." I doubt the trumpeter realized that the winces he makes trying (God, please help him!) to hit those high notes mirror the expression they cause in the listener. A turn by Van Morrison at the mike, however, produces a marvelously convincing rendition of "Send in the Clowns" ("Isn’t it queer/Losing my timing like this/this late in my career"), complete with floating obbligati by Baker.

As a DVD, though, there are a couple of interesting highlights. One is a rather judiciously excerpted interview of the trumpeter by Costello, in which he tells a number of stories, ranging from the time he was hired by Charlie Parker to his boyhood on a farm in Oklahoma. Clips are interspersed between songs, to help provide a sense of the history, sadness and mystery that inform his fragile solos. Other than that, it is mainly just the fascination of seeing Baker perform this close to the end, and the morbid curiosity of seeing if he’ll complete each phrase he begins. As such, it should primarily appeal to the trumpeter’s more devoted fans, as more of a historical monument than a qualitative testament.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Chet Baker
  • CD Title: Live at Ronnie Scotts [DVD]
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Rhino Home Video
  • Rating: Five Stars
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