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Chet Baker and Jack Sheldon — “The Lost Album”

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote snobb Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Chet Baker and Jack Sheldon — “The Lost Album”
    Posted: 21 Apr 2024 at 1:42pm
The music works. The session is among old friends. The rhythm section cooks and every solo holds one’s attention.

In Perfect Harmony: The Lost Album. Chet Baker and Jack Sheldon – trumpet and vocals, Jack Marshall – guitar, Dave Frishberg – piano. Joe Mondragon – bass, Nick Ceroli – drums. Recorded 1972, Tusin, CA

I find Chet Baker and Jack Sheldon fascinating as individuals and as a binary system, in eccentric orbit around each other. Check out links to my other Arts Fuse pieces on the pair below.

Much of my musing has focused on why Baker became an icon of cool, while Sheldon, though he had a successful musical career, never achieved iconic status outside the jazz world. I chafe against the most glib answer — which, unfortunately, may be the most salient — appearance. Until his drug taking began to overtly ravage his body, Baker was chiseled, swoon-inducingly handsome. Sheldon, on the other hand, looked like a slightly elfin, twinkly-eyed version of your high school math teacher.

Baker came from Oklahoma and Sheldon from Florida (his mother chased his reluctant dad across the country). They were almost the same age and both ended up in Southern California. Both were bad boys: they caroused and sat in at clubs together in the early ’50s. Eventually Jack cleaned up his act but, as we know, Chet never did. For both, Bop was foundational, though Baker took an understated approach while Sheldon was likelier to erupt into virtuosic forays. Sheldon didn’t start singing publicly until the ’70s, while Chet Baker Sings was released in 1954. As vocalists, they inhabited different planets.

As time went by, Chet’s musical introversion — especially in vocals — only deepened. His public presentation, certainly whenever I saw him, was relaxed, but no-nonsense. On the other hand, if extroversion can expand over time, Jack’s did. He was a gifted, genuinely funny (and often dirty) humorist — another reason he didn’t acquire the kind of mystique Baker did. Comic performers seldom are mythologized the way “serious” actors are. Ironically, until the end of his life, Sheldon practiced daily and worked hard to improve his playing. He also developed his singing and was able to access a wider range of vocal dynamics. Baker was content to use his enormous natural gifts; his voice and playing remained largely unchanged over the years.

Both lives were rife with tragedy. Baker’s was mostly self-inflicted, or at least, drug-propelled, while Sheldon’s was inflicted from without. Within a fairly short period, his mother was killed by a garbage truck, his son died of cancer, and a daughter in a plane crash.

Sheldon never shared his grief. He was the entertainer, eager to please audiences yet willing to take risks in his playing. Baker was more cautious, yet more precise as well; occasionally letting bits of his personality peek through the performance facade. These occasional bursts of candor seduce the listener into thinking the performer will reveal himself — but he never fully does.

This session was recorded in 1972, one year before it’s generally thought Baker undertook a “comeback” after the loss of his teeth in a fight. The recording was Sheldon’s idea, his way of helping his pal get back into the scene. In order to make things as low key as possible, it was recorded in an out-of-the way studio in Tustin, CA. Fifty years later, tapes of the session were unearthed from the garage of the session’s guitar player, Jack Marshall.

Chet Baker. Photo: Bandcamp

There are 11 tracks in this album and I’ll take a closer look at some representative examples.

Sheldon sings “This Can’t Be Love” with an approach that is partly droll, partly satiric, partly romantic — it is the hybrid space his vocals often inhabit. Chet then sings with just bass accompaniment; it’s as though a gauzy layer of silk has been thrown over the microphone. He stretches the time in his characteristic way as Sheldon does Chet-like trumpet obligatos in the background. It feels like something else should happen in the song, but they’ve kept the length of almost all the tracks to 2-3 minutes in length.

“Just Friends” is Chet’s vocal. Again, he stretches the tempo; Sheldon accompanies. The latter solos, using the full range of his horn. Sheldon often slurs between notes, and it almost has a vocal resonance — it certainly evokes his own singing. Baker’s vocal takes it out, pushing his voice a little past where it can comfortably go.

“Too Blue” is a Sheldon original, done in a medium up tempo. A short Baker trumpet intro is followed by Sheldon’s vocal, which alternates between intimacy, bringing out the double entendre, and pushing the lyric toward the comically absurd. Both men have a slight twang in their voice. I don’t hear it as specifically midwestern or southern, just the way those accents came about, filtered through the laid back California experience. Sheldon uses some vibrato; Baker mostly eschews. Pianist Frishberg stirs the pot and, in a long vamp out, Baker is joined by Sheldon, who adds a bit more flourish. If Sheldon means to push Baker, Chet doesn’t rise to the bait — or the challenge.

“Historia de un Amor” is a ballad written by C. Eleta Almaran. Sheldon handles the Spanish lyrics well, accenting their romanticism. He occasionally edges into the maudlin, but this may be the impression because of the contrast with Baker, who avoids the mawkish at all costs. Baker plays some simple lines behind the melody, then Sheldon plays the melody on trumpet with small horn fills by his partner.

Chet plays the melody of the Jobim bossa nova “Once I Loved.” His playing is fairly straight — for a chorus — and then he plays jazz on it, maintaining his lyricism for the most part, using the low register effectively — a trademark. In the vamped outro, Baker is joined by Sheldon, who then spins more complicated lines and high end bursts around Baker. Some lively back and forth eventually gets going between them but, for some reason, the producers chose to fade out the track just it was starting to get interesting. As noted, all the tracks are short; I’m not sure what the thinking was behind this. Sometimes brevity is the soul of wit and sometimes it’s the wrong choice.

Trumpeter Jack Shelton. Photo: Bandcamp

“You Fascinate Me” is a Coleman-Leigh tune associated with Blossom Dearie. The song lends itself to a patter song approach, and Sheldon takes up a half sung, half spoken approach, aside from the bridge. Baker comes in with some trumpet background and takes over for the next chorus. His chops sound a little weak here. Sheldon occasionally pushes into a half-yodel in some of his more excited vocals, and he does that here on the coda.

“When I Fall In Love” is the longest track in the set, clocking in at 5:05. Sheldon starts with a trumpet intro, followed by Baker embracing his sweet spot: a ballad vocal. Sheldon enters with some brief, simple trumpet background and Baker finishes the chorus. Frishberg’s piano makes a short transition to Chet on trumpet — here one hears so clearly the congruence between his horn and his voice. Baker comes back in to finish on vocal, and it’s hard to not hear some fluctuations in his intonation. The group plays a nice game of tag with Baker’s voice and Sheldon’s trumpet.

This is the only recorded collaboration between the musicians that I know of and I don’t know why. Perhaps behind the camaraderie there was something else going on. They were running buddies, yes, but as Sheldon says, he had to work like a dog to play and Baker could just do it. They were both drinkers and pot smokers, but Baker eventually turned to harder drugs. It’s almost as though when Baker hit rock bottom, his friend offered the opportunity to reconstruct and reconfigure their relationship. According to the album notes, Sheldon said to Baker: “Just think, Chetie. If we do an album together, you’ll only have to play on half of it.”

Whatever the subtext, the music works. The session is among old friends. The rhythm section cooks and every solo holds one’s attention. There may be a few weak moments in Baker’s playing and some strain in his singing, but the yin and yang of their teaming up, 50 years after, is still compelling. 

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz 

from https://artsfuse.org

Edited by snobb - 21 Apr 2024 at 1:42pm
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