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Defector Music Club

Chet Baker Sings, And Defector Music Club Chats

Chet Baker playing trumpet
Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images

Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers get together to dish about an album. Here, Israel Daramola, Patrick Redford, and Lauren Theisen discuss jazz trumpeter Chet Baker's polarizing venture into vocal performance, Chet Baker Sings, from 1954.

Lauren Theisen: Is there anything we’d possibly want to get into before we just talk about how sensual “My Funny Valentine” is?

Israel Daramola: As a baby that recently started his intro to jazz journey last year, I'm curious what it is that makes this project connect so strongly with you guys. It’s obviously very charming and sensual and has that smoky club feel etched all over it, and Baker has an interesting voice that hooks you. Is there anything I’m missing about what makes it stand out?

Lauren: So yes, I pushed really hard for us to explore this album, though not because it’s held a special place in my heart for a long time or anything. My love of jazz mostly begins and ends with Miles Davis in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, but ever since I heard Ethan Hawke talk about him while promoting Born to Be Blue, Chet Baker as an idea has been very alluring to me. He’s a sparkling talent as a trumpet player, someone whose sound is almost aggressively anti-masculine in a very attractive way, and also an artist who had a very classic and compelling rise / drug addiction / comeback of sorts / mysterious death lifetime arc. The way he sings “My Funny Valentine” in particular is just piercingly sexy to me, like he’s singing it in bed while smoking a cigarette, sneaking in these harsh, thoughtless insults while also being so charming. I wanted to take this platform to explore him a little further, and while I’m glad I did, I’ll say that I was wishing for that character to show up more throughout the runtime, and I came away a little unsatisfied because of it.

Israel: Well, what's obvious to me is that there is a depth to his voice. It's weighed down by a darkness and character that keeps it from ever sounding artificial or polished. Even the way the trumpets come in on something like “It’s Always You” has this life experience to it that is weathered with personality. I might not know all of that history, but there’s clearly something there I can connect to.

Lauren: I was thinking about the early work of Joni Mitchell while listening to this—another young artist who could project a lot of mature world-weariness. The passing of time is a meta-narrative of sorts throughout Mitchell's work, and Chet Baker Sings, too, sets the table for this tragedy-of-a-fuck-up pathos that shows up when you hear him perform as a weathered old soul near death in the 1980s.

Patrick Redford: Sorry to begin by being this annoying, but it’s the coherent vibe of the album that made me like it so much. Everything Baker sings has this effortless cool to it, which springs less from the tone of his voice (lullabyish, the texture of pillowy uni, yawning but in a sexy way) and more the confidence in everything being so downtempo and assured of itself. I have been thinking a lot lately, while listening to rap’s elder millennials bicker back and forth, about the idea that most of any musician’s great stuff must necessarily be made when they’re young—that the purest expression of artistic will and vision they will ever produce has to happen in the first few tries. I don’t even think I fully agree with that, especially having seen Kim Gordon make a trap album, but certainly Fair Youth is central to a lot of the best music ever made. I don’t have the finest handle on jazz history, so while I can’t really grapple with the in-era significance of Baker making this album for the mid-’50s Real Yearner set, it’s so striking that a 24-year-old could sing you make me smile / with my heart with that depth of anguish.

Israel: Yes, a success for Big Yearning™️ 

Lauren: Chet Baker Sings undoubtedly was for the Real Yearners. To feel all of its magnetism you have to plant in your mind the kind of forceful uprightness that owned this era. There’s no way around it: In the context of the 1950s, Chet Baker sounds really gay, and that makes him an instant (if not necessarily willing) idol for men who feel on the outside of the specific American Man culture overtaking that moment, and of course for women, too. He’s like Little Richard but for introverts, thrashing tradition in an invisible way, and it’s no surprise also that he’s intertwined with James Dean, another very handsome white boy who embodied more emotions than polite society allowed. He’s so unbelievably soft and vulnerable, while retaining this sinful edge, that on this record I think he’s really stretching the limits of the available songbook for words that can fit his personality. It’s not a coincidence that his signature song originated as something Mitzi Green sang when she was 17.

Patrick: Lauren, I’m glad you brought that up, as the only criticism I read about this album before we convened was the /r/Jazz thread “I don't understand what makes "Chet Baker sings" good....” in which a lot of commenters characterize his voice as “sexually ambiguous,” “genderless,” “honest,” etc. Or, as one person put it, “I think Chet is one of those vocalists who's voice maybe isn't "good" in most ways, but has a lot of character. I can't think of any other vocalists who sound like him. Plus, the ladies LOVE him.” I think this is all basically true? Maybe the highest compliment I can pay to Baker’s singing qua singing is that while it doesn’t sound categorically perfect, it sounds great, which, not to be blunt, is the point of music.

Lauren: The album, including the half-obscured cover shot of him in the recording booth, is very much pushing the fantasy of being near someone like Chet Baker. Because he’s not just blinding you with virtuosity, you can hear something like “That Old Feeling” and imagine him as the boy next door practicing on the other side of the wall, or play “The Thrill Is Gone” and believe he’s moping directly below your window. “Parasocial” is a dirty word now, but there can be something beautiful in listening to a record and deciding that you understand an artist’s soul, especially if a prejudiced establishment loudly does not.

Israel: Even without a supreme knowledge of jazz, I can tell that Baker has a unique voice much different from the rest of the scene. It’s got a real personality to it that is pretty atypical of what else I’ve heard from that time period.

Patrick: Iz, to take it back a little, you mentioned a jazz journey, and I really want to know where that started, where it’s going, and where this record figures into it. I too have been wanting to take a jazz journey. I think all serious music roads lead there eventually.

Israel: Similarly to Lauren, it started with Miles, and also the idea of music to write to, as that had been a big focus for me over the past couple years of writing a book. But with Miles, I was interested in the transitions he made from a more classic sound to a bebop freestyle sound to eventually electronic and funk, and what inflections and changes separate these various eras. It might sound dumb, but I had stayed away from jazz because I didn’t know how to listen to it. I had to adapt to finding the soul and humanity within the notes. So with Chet Baker Sings, it’s interesting to hear that sort of Warren Zevon, cult of personality style on a '50s record. But I’m also intrigued by the instrumentation and the style and again, that humanity in between it all. I’ve probably only scratched the surface, but it has condensed the history of music (but also the world) so much. We’re all just yearning for the same things in different styles of music throughout all of time. 

Patrick: There’s that word again. This is such a yearning-ass record, and something that struck me was the raw place of longing that so many of these lyrics seem to come from. “The Thrill Is Gone” is such a devastating song, and there’s a general aura of Down Bad-edness that was remarkably striking. We’ve talked about the tone of the words a fair bit, but what did you make of the words themselves?

Lauren: Speaking of being down bad, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that a lot of my jazz interests stem from receiving a record player in college and wanting cool LPs to play in the background when people came over at night. For that reason, I also own this massive box set of Billie Holiday songs, which I got at an absolute steal—like four records for $15. To be blunt, Chet is no Billie. While we’ve talked a lot about his careful, sweet voice, he does inevitably bump up against the limits of his own words. Like, on “Look For The Silver Lining,” the last track on the record, I absolutely do not care about a single sentence he utters. It all comes out as bland cliche. Holiday, on the other hand, has such a complexity to her voice and this ridiculous ability to capture you with it that she could sing this very paragraph and make it work. There are moments of transcendence for Baker as a vocalist, but because he was so alien to his own genre, I don’t think enough collaborators really understood how to make the best use of him. Instead, they can seem like they’re submitting to his star power while tip-toeing around his perceived deficiencies.

So since I was the one who volunteered Chet for examination, I’m curious, are you guys ready to leave him behind now that we’re done, or do you think you’ll be going back to him in the future?

Israel: It’s great writing music. That puts him on the playlist already. I am interested in where to go from here: revisit his earlier stuff or get into the late, close-to-the-end-and-sounding-like-it stuff to really FEEL some things. His “My Funny Valentine” is in fact very sensual, and I definitely want to keep listening to that record a lot more.

Patrick: I will definitely keep listening, maybe more in the fall and winter. This is not exactly a springtime record, and it’s hard to lock into its emotional groove when the sun is shining anew, the flowers are all blooming, and I can see peoples’ legs. But it got its hooks into me, as I have not been able to stop whistling little bits of “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” I've used it less as background music and more as soundtrack this past week. It did not work as a backing track to basketball; I wish I could remember who wrote this line but someone, maybe one of the FreeDarko guys, once wrote something to the effect of “Whoever said basketball is jazz has never listened to Rakim.” That said, I could not recommend Chet Baker Sings more highly as a pairing with tennis. Iga Swiatek forehands and Chet’s sonorous longing go so well together.

Israel: This would be a great snowy day record. 

Lauren: It’s a good record to be stuck with, whatever the circumstances. I never feel like Chet’s suffocating me. If anything, I get preoccupied about him slipping away.

Defector's Favorite Jams Right Now

Sabrina Carpenter - "Espresso"

Like everyone else with an internet connection, I have been listening to the Cindy Lee mega-album, and while the coolest guitar textures in the world are something to behold, lately I have been jonesing. I need something harder. I need something stupider. I need that me espresso.

I felt faintly revolted the first time I heard Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso,” a bouncy, vaguely hypnotic (derogatory) pop song that feels totally engineered to go crazy on TikTok—the song of the summer as algorithm-gamer. It’s a genuine phenomenon short-circuiting the brains of 17-year-olds. Is it a good song? That’s the wrong axis to judge it on.

What brought me around (to fascination more than enjoyment) is how weird the writing is. “That’s that me espresso” is something that only makes sense when squealed by an Italian toddler. The thing is, pop songs do not have to make sense. What “Espresso” posits is: they absolutely should not. I have had “I’m working late / cause I’m a singer” lodged in my head for a week, and it too escapes explanation. But something sort of brilliant is going on here at the margins of the English language (as Jeremy Larson wrote in Pitchfork, it evokes Italo-disco ESL goofiness), and while it’s clunky most of the time, “Walked in and dream-came-trued it for ya” is a great line. That’s that that’s that me espresso.


DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ - Destiny

OK, I'd be lying if I said I'd done all four hours of this record yet. (Yes, four hours.) But I've been delighted by its upbeat opening chunk, which triggers a wave of nostalgia without just retracing old paths. This absolutely gigantic release from the London producer sees her collage the most recognizable tropes of late '90s/early 2000s teen pop into an ambitious, immersive experience that pokes at old memories and repeatedly presses the endorphin button. Plenty of artists make music that gets classified as "dream-like," but Destiny literally sounds like something you would hear in a dream—totally familiar yet unplaceable, following its own secretive logic without concern for beginnings or ends. I could almost swear this was playing at Disney World in like 2001. But I guess, apparently, it only came out last year.


Future & Metro Boomin - "Drink N Dance"

If you've been paying attention to rap music lately, you might notice there's a big hullabaloo happening—a real humdinger between a couple a fellas that just can't see eye to eye on nothin'. Kendrick vs Drake is on, and it all started with an album by Future and Metro Boomin. But lost in that excitement is the actual music that Future and Metro Boomin made together. I hate when that happens.

While I don't think either of the projects they released is upper echelon Future, they still have a lot of great moments, including this song from We Still Don't Trust You. "Drink N Dance" is an attempt to reach the highs of HNDRXX cuts like "Incredible" and "Use Me." It's fun, particularly if you prefer melodic in-his-feelings Future over the tough guy thing. But it's especially perfect for summer clubbing and getting really lit off various illegal substances until you're dancing by yourself, shirt open in the middle of the dancefloor.


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