View From The Inside
By Randy Freedman
Another Tale of Two CDs
When my friend Rusty Jones told me about the upcoming release of a new CD that he had recorded over 20 years ago with the legendary but troubled trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker with the Bradley Young Trio, I was surprised that it took so long to get released given all the continuing interest in Baker. I’m still unclear as to the reasons for the delay, but my best guess is that they were related in some way, perhaps, to Baker’s known substance abuse difficulties. Nonetheless, Jones was excited when it was finally released to the public.
Chet Baker – Trumpet, vocals
Bradley Young – Piano
Larry Gray – Bass
Rusty Jones – Drums
Ed Petersen – Tenor sax
The studio recording of Chet In Chicago was cut in May 1986 and released in 2008 on LP, and later on CD by the German label Enja Records. Although Baker was past his musical prime—some argue well past—he seems to have a genuine, natural chemistry with Bradley Young, Rusty Jones, Larry Gray and Ed Petersen, even though this was his first time playing with them.
Both his playing and singing seem to be very subtle and pure, and his manner cool and relaxed. Whatever drug-induced demons Baker may have been battling with at this time, he seems to have mastered them, at least for the duration of this studio session. His singing is largely on key, and when it’s not, he compensates with tons of genuine feeling in his voice. His playing, if not quite his best, is still first-rate.
Some critics have argued that Baker may actually have been a bit too deferential to Bradley Young and his crew and that he should’ve been a bit more “star” and a little less “sideman” on the album. I disagree. I suspect that Baker could see in these sessions he was sharing the microphone with some great, young emerging talent who deserved to benefit from having their moment in the sun. Baker seemed to be graciously willing to help provide it.
In his biography page at bradleyyoung.com, the pianist’s origin is explored: “A Chicago native, Bradley’s eclectic, intimate style draws from the entire history of jazz piano. Bradley’s first inspiration was stride and boogie woogie—he spent years listening to recordings and practicing to master the sounds of piano legends like James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Pete Johnson, and Albert Ammons.
“Playing his first professional gigs at Chicago nightclubs at the tender age of 15, Bradley hooked up with local blues legends Freddie Below, Big Time Sarah, Walter ‘Shaky’ Horton and Jeanne Carroll. He began studying with famed blues pianist and recording star Erwin Helfer.
“After many years of diligent study and practice, Bradley became fluent in his heroes’ styles and he soon became known throughout Chicago as the young piano prodigy of Boogie Woogie. Arriving as a college student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, the young musician began delving into the stylings of legendary pianists like Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock. His style soon evolved from Boogie Woogie to Bebop.”
Some highlights include “Old Devil Moon” (Lane/Harburg). Baker and Young begin with a clever, slow-paced introduction that belies their inexperience playing together. While jazz musicians may routinely play with strangers, doing so with the precision and balance in evidence by this duo is remarkable. The clever, lyrical, yet haunting and thoughtful play of the veteran trumpeter alongside and inspiring the young idealistic pianist makes them the perfect partners. The pace quickens and others join in, and the tune really sparkles behind the brisk treatment Jones and Gray give it. A slower or faster pace, Baker and Young maintain their firm hold on the spotlight for the duration of the song.
On “Solar” (Davis), the group produces a sound that is bright and lively. It’s decidedly less cluttered by the overuse of percussion than is found on the original by Miles Davis’ sextet. Baker’s trumpet is both mellow and strident, as needed. Young has a wonderfully subtle touch on the keyboard that allows him to either complement Baker when they play together or quickly take charge when they do not, as when on a particularly adventurous solo. Jones also takes full advantage of some brief, but well-earned solos.
“Ornithology” (Harris) shows Baker’s high level of comfort and trust with this group. Sounding laid-back and relaxed during a long and thoughtful solo, Baker seems to emphasize every note. Special guest Ed Petersen gets a long, passionate feature role here with the Gray solos. Young tries his best to recreate an almost Bud Powell- like classic bebop sound while the rock-solid Jones helps provide continuity.
“My Funny Valentine” (Rogers) is practically an anthem for Baker, and its inclusion is no surprise. But the real question is how well can Baker still produce his famous mellow vocals and lyrical trumpet play on a tune that will be seen as a measuring stick for him and his musical skills? The answer is—surprisingly well.
Sadly, I am very late in offering a review of Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens. For years I’ve admired O’Hern’s talent as a pianist when I would hear him accompany vocalist Nicole Kestler onstage. But listening to the recordings of his big band I must admit to finding both the sheer size of the group and their extreme musical versatility more than a little off-putting.
Music blogger Gail Dee writes: “The band performs original compositions by O’Hern as well as his arrangements for songs from Jimmy Webb to Queen. O’Hern throws a lot of musical curves at his versatile band. Brian says, ‘We play straight jazz, out jazz, boogaloos, rock covers, waltzes, marches, church music, hora, bolero, rumba, calypso, corals, and anthems.’
“Educated at Berklee College of Music, Brian says he wasn’t interested at all in ‘big bands’ until he toured with Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller’s bands. Brian plays the keyboards, piano, B-3 organ and accordion. (He also likes the kazoo;-) At 48 years old, he still has a baby face and a boyish charm in front of the audience. As well as being a serious composer, he’s also a comedian and in the intimate club setting does hilariously outrageous things—like stripping down to his briefs to put on tights and a cape as he performs ‘We Are the Champions’ as a rock star.”
I have delayed long enough. It is time for me to put on my “big boy pants” and do this:
Pat Mallinger – Saxophone
Dave Creighton – Saxophone
Dan Nicholson – Saxophone
Matt Wifler – Saxophone
B.J. Levy – Trumpet
B.J. Cord – Trumpet
Scott Anderson – Trumpet
Raphael Crawford – Trombone
Dylan Rehm – Trombone
Brian O’Hern – Rhythm
Mike Allemana – Rhythm
Matt Ferguson – Rhythm
Gerald Dowd – Rhythm
The first track, “On The Other Side,” ends up being a sort of a fast-paced and wild, but pleasing combination of traditional big band swing with ‘50s or ‘60s TV-themed rock. This features standout, jaw-dropping performances by both Mike Allemana on rhythm guitar and Pat Mallinger on saxophone while they trade lines back and forth with the rest of the band.
As was no surprise to anyone familiar with O’Hern and the Model Citizens, their presentation of the “Star- Spangled Banner” (Smith/ Key) was a virtual guarantee not to be a “traditional” version. But, I wondered whether or not it would begin in a traditional manner then go from there as well as how long it would take. The answer is about 15 seconds. O’Hern kept enough of the original intact to leave no doubt in your mind that it was in fact the song you were listening to, and, to let you know just how much fun the band was having by blowing it all up knowing how much fun we could have by listening to them do it.
The beginning of “My Baby” sounds just like it would if you’re going out for a stroll in Harlem—a fine summer afternoon and you happen to be walking by the Savoy Ballroom and can hear Count Basie “practicing” or just screwing around on the piano, and then you hear horns kick in and it all goes full throttle until there is a total well-planned pause, and then O’Hern utters in a deadpan manner, “My Baby.” If you are listening carefully you can hear quotations from such musical classics as “Anchors Away,” “Marines Hymn” and “McArthur Park.”
In the great tradition of artists like Spike Jones and Victor Borge, Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens have managed to successfully walk the tightrope between humor and musical excellence while delighting their audiences.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.