Published: June, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Trumpet gods
Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie anthologies bring legends back to life

By Michael Fortes

Jazz magazines will sometimes invite musicians to participate in 'blindfold' tests, where they listen to a recording and have to determine who is playing. Though some players will do well at closely imitating others, thus causing occasional confusion in 'blindfold' tests, it's a fairly safe bet that nobody would confuse Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker.

The two legendary trumpet players, who couldn't be more different, were recently anthologized with deluxe 2-CD sets on the Shout! Factory label. The sets are a fine study in contrasts: black vs. white, east coast vs. west coast, bop vs. cool.

For starters, with the Gillespie set, you really are getting a neat historical snapshot of his distinguished career, starting with his early appearances in big bands and ending with a live recording made the year before his 1993 death from pancreatic cancer.

The Chet Baker set takes a different angle. Each disc is divided between his instrumentals and his vocal performances, so you'd have to rip and burn the tracks in order if you want to hear his story in music unfold in a linear fashion. Still, the entire span of Chet's tenure is represented, from 1952 up till 1988, the year he died after falling from the window of a hotel room in Amsterdam.

Off to the east coast, there was Dizzy. Black, proud, and blowin' that crazy bebop that could be played at a break-neck pace, and sometimes a little slower too. The best of these are undoubtedly tunes like "Groovin' High," "Dizzy Atmosphere" and "Perdido," where the presence of Charlie "Bird" Parker on alto sax causes musical sparks to fly.

Add some occasional vocals for good humor, and you've got yourself some good-time music that seems to reflect just what we see when we gaze upon those chipmunk cheeks and up-turned bell. "Oop-Bop-Sh'Bam!" Just say it! Silly, huh? But it feels good, doesn't it? That was a great part of bebop's appeal. Ditto for "Salt Peanuts." Mmm…

But bebop could slow down and get a little sentimental, too, like with the classic love song "All The Things You Are," and "Mean To Me." There's still some jump in those jams, though, which is what sets them apart from 'cool' treatments and such.

Ultimately, we hear that Dizzy was always a bit beyond the confines of bebop. He started off playing in big bands with Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine, and eventually expanded his palette to include tasty Cuban rhythms.

But back to 'cool.' Chet Baker's west coast stylings oozed cool. Far more of his work was of the romantic variety, blowin' his horn softly through such tunes as "Alone Together," "When Lights Are Low," and of course, "My Funny Valentine." And when he wasn't blowing his horn, he was softly crooning his way through "Everything Happens To Me," "The Touch Of Your Lips," "There Will Never Be Another You," a straight reading of Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," and that "Funny Valentine" tune again.

And where Dizzy's predominant mood was upbeat and fun, Chet veered more towards something tender, romantic, longing, or even despondent. Yet his musical expression wasn't particularly 'loud and clear,' and it often came off as detached or generic on his vocal sides. The liner notes to the package put an interesting spin on this quality of his music, claiming it helped to make him a hit with closeted gay men.

The liner notes to both packages offer a quick overview of each artist's life and career, filling in the blanks that the music doesn't tell us. In some cases, biographical information can be a bummer. In the case of Dizzy, I was a little bummed to learn that the hip bebop cat with the big smile was prone to violent outbursts, and lost his gig with Cab Calloway after a dispute in which Diz stabbed his employer in the thigh. Ouch!

In the case of Chet Baker, we learn that he too could be violent, particularly towards his female companions. Another bummer, and one that ultimately makes it exceedingly difficult, if not totally impossible, to sympathize with the man. Though some really fascinating ideas are explored in the notes, such as the 'homoerotic vibe' of his music and the causes and effects of his emotionless singing style.

Being that this is Shout! Factory that has released these anthologies - the label is run by music buffs formerly associated with Rhino - the essays enclosed in the package turn out to be as illuminating as the music itself. Aside from, quite frankly, ugly cover art that looks like it belongs on a fly-by-night budget reissue label package one would find crowding the shelves of Wherehouse, these collections might as well be what one would call 'definitive.' They certainly provide plenty for the casual fan, or even the merely curious.