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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Friday, 26 August 2022 19:05

Chet Baker: Live From Paris

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Newly remastered live recording from Paris in June 1980 is a revelation.

Live From Paris is a newly remastered release from Germany’s Circle Records that captures Chet Baker and his quintet playing at Le Dreher club in Paris. The band features Karl Ratzer on guitar, Nicola Stilo on flute, Riccardo del Fra on bass and Al Levitt on drums.

The original recordings were mired in controversy. They emerged on two single LPs later that year entitled Night Bird and Tune Up. The quality of the original recording was poor; La Dreher was a small club, with the audience sat very close to the stage, which meant that it was difficult to carefully mike each musician. In addition, the original mix was horrible, with the drums too loud within the mix, and Chet himself too low.

In addition, the albums were released without the knowledge of the other musicians. They noticed the recording equipment, but Chet explained that Circle Records were simply making a “test recording”. Guitarist Karl Ratzer came across the albums in a store a few months later, and asked Rudolf Kreiss, then proprietor of Circle Records, for an explanation. It turns out that Chet had signed a contract with the label, promising to pay the musicians out of his own pocket; that never happened, an all-too-frequent occurrence given Chet’s tendency to live out of a suitcase.

I considered the albums to be something of a disappointment at the time, particularly after the spectacular Steeplechase recordings from the previous year that had effectively resurrected Chet’s career in Europe.

So what’s changed? Frieder Mollat has resurrected Circle Records, and arranged for the Paris recordings to be remastered by Mark Wingfield, a UK-based guitarist and producer. He apparently took unplayed versions of the original vinyl recordings, and cleaned up both the sound and balance. The results are far from perfect, as the original recording was crude, but the results are still a revelation. Chet’s playing and singing is now higher in the mix, and a lot of the background noise from the original vinyl releases has been reduced. The playing of the other musicians, most notably that of Riccardo del Fra and Karl Ratzer, is also much clearer now. On the original recordings, drummer Al Levitt was way too high in the mix, and drowned out some of the other musicians.

The new mix is much easier on the ear, and supports del Fra’s view that Chet still played like a be-bopper at heart in the early 1980s. “It’s very different to what we did later,” he explained to me, referencing recordings like Chet Baker Sings Again. Take a listen to Chet’s solo on Leaving, which is superb.

In many ways, this recording is one of the missing links between Chet’s legendary Steeplechase recordings and his ‘drummerless’ trio recordings of the early 1980s. It also calls into question – again – the widely-held view that Chet’s playing was in decline over this period. Sure, there were good nights and bad nights, but his reputation was sometimes let down by poor quality recordings. Live From Paris helps to resurrect that view.

Live From Paris is available as a digital download, with a stunning portrait of Chet by Deborah Feingold, taken in the late 1970s. It is also available in the two original releases, Night Bird and Tune Up, both of which come with new and improved artwork. 

I would rate Live From Paris with a three-star rating. There are still better-quality live recordings from this era, such as the Steeplechase recordings and the newly-released Chet Baker Trio, Live In Paris – reviewed here. But Live From Paris is well worth a listen, and is ripe for re-evaluation.

Circle Records also have plans to remaster Conception, another Chet Baker album recorded at Le Dreher around this time. The album is expected to be remastered in September and released towards the end of the year. Watch this space!

For more information, visit Circle Records here.

And if you want to read more about these recordings, and Chet Baker's amazing life, you can buy a copy of my bio, Funny Valentine, The Story Of Chet Baker, here. Alternatively message me directly to get hold of a signed copy.

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