Pacific Jazz’ Prince Of Cool: The Pacific Jazz Years 1952-1957 captures Baker at the start of his ascent in public consciousness as the energy of youth and the growth in creativity helped to imprint his brand of trumpet playing as one consisting of directness within a fairly narrow range. But like Billie Holiday, who remained within a comfortable range and still communicated amplitudes of unforgettable emotion nonetheless, Baker proved that reaching an audience could be done without compromising artistry. His live recording with Stan Getz at The Haig paired two harmonically compatible but personally incompatible masters who left an indelible mark on jazz vocabulary, both of whom drawing upon reservoirs of emotion to connect with audiences while remaining distinctive and innovative. Indeed, a majority of the musicians who joined Baker on these early recordings went on to establish their own jazz identities: musicians like Bob Brookmeyer, Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Chico Hamilton, Herb Geller and Leroy Vinnegar.
The three-CD set comprising Pacific Cool is broken into three distinct aspects of Baker’s talent: his early vocal work from albums like Chet Baker Sings; his recordings as the leader on trumpet of his own groups from ten of his albums; and his collaborations with other well-known musicians in band settings. The fact that Baker’s music could be segmented into three different parts suggests the breadth of his talent, some of which critics underestimated at the time but which has endured intact throughout the years. The choir-boy qualities of Baker’s voice contrast with the intensity and aggressive swing of his trumpet work on songs like "To Mickey’s Memory." The romanticism of his singing gives no hint at the harder edges of his playing or the argumentative nature of his personality.
The CD entitled Chet Sings does intend to convey the dreamy quality of his singing, with Russ Freeman sometimes on celeste as well as piano and with guitarist David Wheat’s accompaniment gently chiming in chords rather than pushing the beat as would a rhythm guitarist. On songs like "Let’s Get Lost," the lyrics attain a wistful quality, implying ambivalence rather than giddiness. "I Fall In Love Too Easily" adds again an ironic dimension to his singing with the thrill of romance tempered by the knowledge of its undesired consequences.
The second CD, Chet Plays, sequences the smoldering intensity of Baker’s playing on "Bea’s Flat" next to the leisurely but nevertheless urgent approach to ballads like "How Long Has This Been Going On?" with which Baker felt so comfortable. In addition, even though Baker spent much of his later career performing many of the same popular standards, his work at the start of his career covered a wider song list, including compositions like "Lucius Lu" or "Happy Little Sunbeam" written by some of his band members.
And Chet & Friends, the third CD, continues the irony, the double perspective, that much of Baker’s life and music lent itself to. The "Friends" to whom the title refers, like Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, never were close friends of Baker’s, and in fact their strong personalities usually clashed off stage whenever they performed. Yet, on record, their mutual feeling for the music overcame personality differences, and the incomparable beauty of the results, like Pepper’s playing with Baker on "Tynan Time" seemed effortless. The fact that Pete Jolly, who accompanies Baker on several of the tracks, passed away last week signals the timelessness of the recordings, the music still relevant a half century after it was recorded during a few years of the nascent West Coast jazz movement. Many of the tracks on the third disk do attain moments of transcendence that remain ineradicably etched in memory.
Prince Of Cool, though containing but a fraction of Baker’s output, represents through conscientious culling of his available recordings a portrait of the artist as a young man when his talent was fresh, when he participated in an important jazz movement, when the habits and self-destructiveness of his adulthood were being formed, when his new ideas were being tried for the first time, and when one of the more authentic musical voices in jazz had a lot to say vocally and instrumentally.