Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cover Me Impressed: 'Almost Blue'

Let me start by saying if you haven't seen 'Let's Get Lost,' the 1988 documentary on the life and times of the late jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, you have missed a beautiful but heartbreaking piece of art. Even though I haven't seen it for more than two decades, I remember everything about the experience... down to renting it from Video Beat in the heart of Chicago's Lincoln Park (one of the greatest stores of all time). For the first time in many years, I pulled the soundtrack off the shelf. In hindsight, we know these are the last days of the drug-addicted artist, and the small whistle heard from the nearly toothless Baker is haunting but, at the same time, it's somehow beautiful.

If you are a fan of Elvis Costello, you have heard Baker before. That's his trumpet solo on "Shipbuilding," one of two serious moments from the 1983 album 'Punch the Clock.' From the 1995 Ryko reissue liner notes, Costello says:

I opened the paper to find that Chet Baker was playing a hurriedly announced residency at The Canteen. I went alone to find Chet in a wonderful musical form despite the presence of several drunken bores who would loudly cal for more booze in the middle of some of his most delicate playing. You got the feeling that this happened most nights but it seemed particularly appropriate that the main culprit was said to be one of London's leading jazz critics. Between sets I introduced myself to Chet who was wandering about in the club untroubled by patrons. There is no false modesty in saying he had no idea who I was. Why the hell should he? However he accepted my invitation to come and play on the "Shipbuilding" session the next day. I mentioned a fee. He said "Scale". I think I probably doubled it.

It was a tense but rewarding session. Chet took a little time to grasp the unusual structure of the song but once he had it he played beautifully even if he looks pretty deathly in the studio photos. I'd also say it was one of The Attractions very best performances. At the end of the session I handed Chet a copy of "Almost Blue" a song which was modeled on his style. He ended up recording it but that's another story.

My one regret about the track is that I was tempted to put a spin echo onto a couple of Chet's phrases. I suppose I still had "Sketches of Spain" in the back of my mind. Then again at the time I didn't really understand what composer David Bedford was trying to do in the arrangement of the strings and had them rather buried in the mix. Now I'm really glad that we are all on the record.

Footnote: From then on I always went to see Chet whenever he played in London. Jazz club patrons, who'd probably never heard "Shipbuilding", looked a little startled when he picked me out in the crowd or dedicated a number. We'd have a drink and he'd say funny things about the "jazz singer" who was wowing house with less than a pink dress and little talent. however he seemed somebody that you "knew" rather than somebody you were "friends with". I even interviewed him once for a video special and sang a few numbers, including "You Don't Know What Love Is", with his trio. I think he knew I didn't want to talk about "the drugs". However, despite the fact that he once said in an magazine interview that he didn't care for that fateful echoed phrases he never raised that matter with me and I never got round to apologizing. I guess you can't change history.

I will assume you already have the studio version of "Almost Blue" from the classic 'Imperial Bedroom.' So, here's a live take of Costello with the Attractions from Sydney in 1982, followed by Baker's version (with slightly different lyrics) from 'Let's Get Lost.' Finally, here's a little bonus. Enjoy Tracey Thorn's beautiful voice on a cover from Everything But the Girl. I have this one on the compilation '82-92 Essence and Rare.'

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Almost Blue (mp3) (from 'Daze of Glory' bootleg)
Chet Baker - Almost Blue (mp3)
Everything But the Girl - Almost Blue (mp3)

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