Listen to this track by James Dean-meets-Sinatra-meets-Bix-Beiderbecke jazz amalgam and legend in his own right Chet Baker. It’s “Almost Blue”, a latter-day standard for Baker as featured prominently in the film Let’s Get Lost and also featured on the live album Chet Baker Live In Tokyo, recorded in 1987 and released posthumously the next year.
That movie was a documentary about Baker, who had risen in prominence in the fifties, initially in his associations with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and with the West Coast jazz scene in general. But, Baker had also played with east coast musicians, too, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Baker had even caught the eye of the movie industry, thanks to his almost supernatural good looks. In addition to all of that, Baker was a gifted trumpeter, and hauntingly nuanced vocalist. He was known for his melancholic tone with both voice and instrument, making his name by playing standards that were tinged with tragedy; “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, and “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, being prime examples.
Maybe that’s why this tune, written by Elvis Costello with Chet Baker in mind, fit so well into his musical wheelhouse, eventually becoming a stalwart concert favourite during the last phase of his career. Yet, the theme of dissatisfaction and loss seemed to go beyond the material. Baker seems to embody it, and for good reason. By the eighties, Baker had seen it all. To many, it was a miracle that he would be able to tell about it, probably including Chet Baker.
As much as Baker is known for his clean and lilting trumpet lines and melancholic vocal delivery, he is also known for his destructive relationship with drugs. Heroin in particular would be a constant weight on Baker, taking tolls on his health, his finances, and even his freedom during the course of his career. He’d done time in jail for drugs. He’d been forced to pawn his instruments for drugs. And at one point, his criminal associations that were necessary to his acquiring drugs cost him his ability to play music, albeit briefly. Beaten within an inch of his life in 1968, his assailants broke his teeth and cut his mouth to the degree that his trumpeter’s embrouchure (the shape of the mouth needed to create the sound from the instrument) was ruined for him, making it impossible for him to play the same way ever again.
After his initial 1950s sides that helped to make his name, critical backlash against Baker began to rear its head, especially as his troubles deepened. But, despite all of that, he overcame. First, he was fitted with false teeth and with that, worked out a new way to blow the trumpet, and eventually the flugelhorn on his seventies material. He used methadone to mitigate his heroin intake, and by the late seventies and into the eighties, he began recording and making personal appearances regularly, particularly in Europe. Despite the shadow of his habit, it was his ability to play anything with very little preparation, with an instinctive ear for melodic architecture that made him a singular musician in any era or even genre that one can name.
“Almost Blue” was written by Elvis Costello, and included on his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album. It was Baker’s take on “The Thrill Is Gone” that inspired its shadowy and beautifully sullen tone. As if to complete the circle, Costello’s tune was perfect for Baker who was on something of a career upswing by the early eighties. Among other things of course, Costello would hire Baker to play trumpet on “Shipbuilding” around the same time, also something of a Bakeresque tune even without him on the song. From here, the connection between “Almost Blue” and Chet Baker can be made.
In Baker’s hands, the spirit of what Costello was attempting to evoke was fully realized. After years of hard-living behind him, Baker’s voice added a level of pathos that raised the material to a higher plane, a tale of missing an ex while entangled in a sham of a new relationship. This is a song about loneliness, regret, and spiritual despondency that comes with a sense of loss. Baker knew loss very well. There’s just something in the repetition of the word “almost” itself that is heart-rending, as if happiness is only just out of reach, full as it is of existential anguish. Considering his history up until then, Baker’s cover of this record just seemed inevitable. Chet Baker would perform this song routinely from the early eighties onward, even including it in his appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1986, playing trumpet while Costello took up vocal duties.
Chet Baker died in the spring of 1988, the result of a fall from his second floor hotel room window in Amsterdam. He left behind a unique legacy in the history of jazz and traditional vocal pop music, with a distinctive voice that seemed to be the sound of a lost and romantic soul and on his abilities as an instrumentalist.
To learn more about him, check out chetbaker.net.
Also, you can take a look at the trailer for the film Let’s Get Lost right here.