This is an important release, for several reasons. First of all, it is a genuine find, and captures two previously unreleased concerts by Chet Baker; the first was an open-air recording at l’Esplanade de la Defense in June 1983, the second an atmospheric performance at Le Petit Opportun club.
Secondly – an unlike some of the releases at that time – these gigs were professionally recorded by Radio France, so the sound quality is very good. The recordings were apparently available by request previously, but they have essentially been unheard until now.
Thirdly, they capture Chet in a format that he loved – a drummerless trio. As the liner notes make clear, this was not necessarily an easy format for the other musicians. It required a bass player who could keep perfect time, for one – but it did allow plenty of space for the musicians to express their ideas, and Chet usually thrived on that.
Both concerts feature the criminally underrated pianist, Michel Graillier, who really deserves more recognition than he achieved. Dominique Lemerle, an experienced club musician, plays bass on the former, whilst Riccardo Del Fra, who accompanied Chet on some of his finer later recordings, plays bass on the latter.
The two concerts give listeners a good feel for Chet’s vast repertoire, and there are no repeat songs – not that any two songs were ever played the same way, in any case. There are songbook standards, such as There Will Never Be Another You and But Not For Me, be-bop classics, such as Walkin’, and newer compositions written by his sidemen in later years, such as Arbor Way and Margerine.
Of the two concerts here, the gig at Le Petit Oppotun is the highlight. The sound is slightly better – the outdoor recording occasionally suffers from distortion and volume changes, whereas the indoor gig sounds more intimate. The bass player, Riccardo Del Fra, also knew exactly what Chet was looking for, and plays more of a lead, rather than supporting role. Finally – and this is a matter of personal choice, really – it features more instrumentals. Chet’s singing was something of an acquired taste, even at his peak, but in later years his tone was less beautiful, the phrasing less clear. Not that he was on bad for here, by any means – but his playing was exceptional.
And here’s the thing. There are still many people out there, particularly in North America, it seems, who believe that Chet was in a steady decline as a musician from the late 1950s on. I’ve long argued that there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, and this album clearly demonstrates that on a good night, he had plenty to offer.
Finally, the double-CD features a series of essays from jazz historians and musicians, as well as numerous photographs. The lead essay by Ashley Khan is something of a disappointment, and has nothing new to add, but the interviews with Riccardo Del Fra and pianist Richie Beirach are incredibly insightful.