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Discographical Details

Artist: Chet Baker.
Title: In New York.
Label and Catalogue Number: Riverside RLP 12-281.
Personnel: Chet Baker (trumpet); Johnny Griffin (tenor sax); Al Haig (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); “Philly” Joe Jones (drums).
Side 1: Fair Weather; Polka Dots and Moonbeams; Hotel 49.
Side 2: Solar; Blue Thoughts; When The Lights Are Low.
Recording Date: September 1958 at Reeves Sound Studios, New York City, New York, USA.

On The Record

Selection: Hotel 49.

This is my first posting after a while focussed on other areas of life. The hiatus has given me time to think about how I want to present these postings and do the photography more efficiently. One of the things that contributed to the lack of posting was a desire to emulate the forensic (and, let’s be honest, time-consuming) standard of pictures being achieved elsewhere. I’ve realised that perhaps I should aim to achieve something else, offer a view through a different lens (so to speak) and thus be able to post more frequently. With that in mind, I’m going to evolve things a little – both in terms of the pictures but also in terms of the writing. One aspect that appeals to me is taking a closer look at the liner notes. After all, these are an atmospheric relic of the era and often offer insights and historical details that are absent from modern LPs.

So here goes with today’s subject…

The first time I heard Chet Baker was his poignant if brief contribution to Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding. Of course, as a teenager, I didn’t recognise that fact until many years later and in the intervening time my encounters with Baker were mainly marked by his understated singing style. Add to that the fact that my tastes don’t currently run to the somewhat anaemic charms of the West Coast cool school and my decision to acquire this LP may seem surprising.

So what’s the attraction of this record? For me, it’s two-fold. Firstly, Baker may have operated almost exclusively in the middle register of his instrument but what he lacked in dynamic range he more than made up for in melodic lyricism. Secondly, this is one of those “East meets West” dates, not unlike Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (Contemporary C3532) which shares two of the same sidemen.

The story goes that people at Pacific Records were tired of Baker’s drug problems and, following his release from a prison sentence, they were more than happy to farm him out. Enter Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records and an agreement for Baker to record four records under the New York label’s aegis. Despite this unpromising beginning, two of the four records Baker cut for Riverside (this one and the ballads-based Chet (Riverside RLP 12-299)) qualify as among the best of his career. For discographical completeness, the other two were It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings (Riverside RLP 12-278) and Chet Baker Plays the Best of Lerner and Loewe (Riverside RLP 12-307).

In New York‘s title is apposite both because Baker travelled to the Big Apple for the recording but also because Riverside teamed him with some of that city’s heaviest hitters. “Philly” Joe Jones and Paul Chambers were drafted in from the Miles Davis Quintet, the fast and fiery Theolonius Monk/Art Blakey alumnus Johnny Griffin rounded out the front line and nimble bop pianist Al Haig completed the line-up and brought his experience of working with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. On paper, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Baker/Griffin combination working yet they go together like caramel and salt: each completely different yet strangely complementary when brought together. Baker’s influence draws some rich styling from Griffin; reciprocally, Baker seems encouraged to play hotter than usual over the pinpoint accurate driving of the rhythm section. Each horn player finds a new dimension to his playing without sacrificing his core characteristics.

Not only were the sidemen chosen with care but there’s also a deft touch behind the choice and programming of material. Griffin’s weight is lent to half of the numbers, mainly the up-tempo selections, which leaves Baker breathing space to do what he does best on the more romantic tunes. The cuts with Griffin’s involvement emphasise the Eastern compass point by including two Benny Golson compositions Fair Weather and Blue Thoughts as well as sprightly swinger Hotel 49. The latter tune being the one that takes Baker furthest from his comfort zone as Jones lays down some fierce swinging beats and each member of the group sinks teeth into meaty solos. There was a genuine risk here for Baker that he would be wiped out in such heavy company yet he manages to ride the wave to the end.

There are plenty reasons that invite, perhaps unfavourable, comparison with the contemporaneous Miles Davis Quintet: Chambers and Jones are both present; Baker inhabits the same middle register space as Davis and the choice of material echoes the Davis group’s book of that era with a combination of bop originals and show tunes. Even Davis’ own Solar is on the agenda and it’s here that Baker’s limitations are exposed – he lacks the improvisational imagination and mastery of knowing when not to play that made Davis so assured. Though once back on familiar ballad territory with Polka Dots and Moonbeams and When The Lights Are Low Baker regains his poise and walks the tightrope between heart rending emotion and cheesiness with aplomb. In New York was never going to start any musical revolutions but it does succeed on its own terms: East brings out the best of West and vice versa to deliver half a dozen hugely enjoyable, if not challenging, performances.

Some Riverside sessions suffer from less than stellar recording quality and I’ve seen some damning reviews of remastered/reissued versions of this particular record. However, judging by my mono first pressing copy, this is up there with the best of any Riverside record in my possession. You can judge for yourself by listening to the ripped track I’ve included above.

I read with interest a recent comment thread on the Jazz Collector website about the virtues or otherwise of Discogs as a source of collectible jazz records. In my limited experience, almost everything written there, both positive and negative, is true of Discogs. It should come as no surprise that caveat emptor should be your watch words.

There are genuinely desirable records on offer at good prices but there are also some records that are not all that their vendors purport them to be. I purchased the record discussed here from a Swedish seller on Discogs. When I first saw the listing of a first pressing of such a nice record in at least Excellent if not Near Mint condition for a reasonable asking price I was excited and skeptical in equal measure. So I took the option offered by Discogs to contact the seller, ask questions and request additional photographs of the specific record for sale. The seller was polite, prompt and thorough with his reply which gave me the confidence I needed to go ahead with the purchase. One of the things that trips up unwary buyers on Discogs is that the pictures of records and covers on the site are not ones of the actual item for sale. Some sellers play on this confusion while others provide links to places outside Discogs where they have uploaded photos of the specific item, so make sure you know what you’re dealing with before place an order.

Between The Lines

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As I mentioned above, I’m going to start paying closer attention to liner notes as part of the evolution of the format of my postings. Fortuitously, this record offers a neat way into that area of discussion by virtue of it being blessed with a set of liner notes penned by Riverside co-owner Orrin Keepnews himself. In later years, Keepnews was to show himself to be one of the most thoughtful, well-connected and knowledgeable of jazz writers. So it comes as no surprise that the notes for In New York read like a well-paced essay, albeit one with a commercial undercurrent to the points it makes.

Riverside took a risk with Baker and I’ve read that Keepnews was initially opposed borrowing him from Pacific. Yet these notes offer no hint of concern and the judgement of history is that this was, on balance, a good decision. Rather, Keepnews chooses to focus on the positive. So much so that the notes almost read like a manifesto for not only this record but Riverside’s decision to sign Baker for a four album deal.

Keepnews’ vehicle for this is to exploit the East meets West theme to clever advantage. First Keepnews sets it up as a point of controversy or debate among jazz fans and then he knocks it down as a paper tiger by pointing out the true origins of the musicians concerned as being neither California or New York and highlighting Baker’s desire to break new ground because “Chet has felt increasingly that his usual musical settings were not permitting him to say all had had to say, to play as fully as he would like”. Along the way there are artful references to Baker’s previous success and laurels in the Downbeat and Metronome annual readers’ polls.

The notes then use the style of Chet’s playing on the record as a way to neatly slide into more familiar liner note territory with a few paragraphs about the tracks and each musician’s contribution. Keepnews closes out with two allusions to his original theme as final thoughts to lodge firmly in the reader’s mind and hopefully seal the deal on a record store purchase!

For Collectors Only

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Side 1 has the small (92mm diameter) blue and silver “reels and microphone” label with deep groove and the “BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS” wording without an “INC.” The deadwax etching has a faint matrix number “RLP-12-281A” and the letters “CC” both of which proved very hard to pick up in photography. I don’t know what the latter represents but it’s probably a mastering or pressing plant identifier. Can anybody can shed any light on that? Side 2 also has the small blue and silver “reels and microphone” label with deep groove and the same “BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS” wording. Again, the deadwax is faintly etched with another “CC” and the matrix number “RLP-12-281 B”. The record itself weighs 158g and is just short of Near Mint condition with a few non-intrusive pops.

The front cover is beautifully laminated with very minor corner wear. The rear cover is exceptionally clean and bears the “553 West 51st Street New York 19, N. Y.” address. Overall, it reflects the music – no revolutionary typography but an attractive choice of colours.

Given all the above, I think this passes muster as mono first pressing and, I’m delighted to say, demonstrates that Discogs can throw up some gems.