Craft Recordings' 5 LP Chet Baker Box Sure to Please Fans

For every reason, from mastering to pressing to packaging and annotation—and pricing, Craft’s 5 LP Chet Baker Riverside box scores the highest marks.

The recent RSD mono release of It Could Happen to You—Chet Baker Sings signaled what this set might and turned out to be. For those fans who might have some of these albums on original or OJC reissues, you can be sure the audio here soundly beats those.

I’ve got original mono and stereo editions of a few and a 180g OJC of Chet Baker in New York (OJC-207) that I believe Analogue Productions reissued using the OJC metal parts and in every sonic way these all-analog transfers from the original tapes mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio are better, particularly in terms of transparency, 3-dimensionality, bottom end solidity and of course pressing quality—early Riversides, particularly stereo editions, were often noisy and cut at low levels.

For fans, in addition to far superior sound and packaging of the four Riversides Baker released in 1958 and 1959, there’s a 5th album of 6 out and alternative takes that of necessity were cut from 192/24 bit transfers. The inner gatefold sleeve features an iconic shot of a young white T-shirt wearing Baker stretched out across two folding chairs, looking every bit the rock star as Elvis.

A die-cut opening holds a 15 page attractively printed annotation by Doug Ramsey plus a few photos. Also in the opening in a separate glassine-like envelope labeled “Chet Baker & Wally Coover” is a 4”x7” reproduction of the sepia toned cover (minus graphics) of Chet (RLP 1135). Coover is the “coover girl” in the photo not some obscure jazz musician you’ve never heard of who’s not among the credited musicians.

Given Baker’s tragic relationship with heroin I hesitated to use “glassine envelope” but that’s what it was, besides in the informative notes Ramsey writes “In this comprehensive collection, we have Chet Baker smack in the heart of the New York scene….” —that's a word I would have avoided using!

The notes begin the story with Baker’s 1974 Half-Note and Carnegie Hall “comeback” appearances and then smartly segues into a more generalized discussion of Baker’s talent and his broad appeal. There’s some confusion, however, at least for me unless I’m missing something: Ramsey writes on page 5 without naming them about this collections “first two tracks” and then in some detail about Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” as if readers could listen to it in this collection, but “M.F.V” does not appear anywhere here, so was this essay lifted from a different compilation and not edited to conform to the package?

In any case, the history and detailed background will be useful to both long-time Baker fans and the newly acquainted. Signed in 1958 to a 4 LP Riverside Records deal in New York after rising to fame on the west coast in the early ‘50s with Charlie Parker, pianist Russ Freeman and Gerry Mulligan, Baker debuted with It Could Happen to You—Chet Baker Sings (RLP 1120) featuring Kenny Drew on piano and either Philly Joe Jones or Danny Richmond on drums. Recorded in August of 1958 it’s the only record of the four not produced by label founder Orrin Keepnews, who apparently wasn’t a big fan of Baker’s vocalizing, nor, according to Ramsey, was he a Baker fan in general, mostly because by this time his drug problems had produced reliability and behavioral problems (though based on what’s on these records he remained at the top of his musical game with his playing and singing thoughtful, emotionally attached and well-disciplined). It’s difficult to imagine Keepnews was disappointed by either how this Riverside debut turned out, or by how it was received by the jazz (and pop) record buying public

The recent review of the RSD mono reissue sums up the music, which epitomizes Baker’s cool, soothing approach. One could make a sonic argument for either version. However, unlike some labels' early stereo efforts, these Riversides are, for the most part, spatially quite well-integrated and produce natural 3D soundstages.

Baker was back in the studio a few weeks later to record Chet Baker in New York (RLP 1119). Though the album’s liner notes suggest the date’s musicians were of Baker’s choosing, clearly at this time, despite his Baker reservations, it was producer/label founder Keepnews who surrounded his star attraction with top New York talent, including tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin and the rhythm section of pianist Al Haig, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. The set opens with Baker, spurred on by Griffin, in a less than “west coast cool”, harder blowing mindset. Why come to New York and do anything less? As the notes point out, for those less impressed by Baker’s “cool” persona, he proves here he could blow hard jazz too. Paul Chambers’ arco bass solo on “Hotel 49”, followed by Jones’s short drum solo are among the album’s sidemen highlights.

Let me put in another word here about the care that went into the packaging. The colors on the OJC reissue, particularly on Baker’s face, are grossly oversaturated and un-natural-looking. The NYC skyline behind is washed out on the OJC, while on this new issue, it’s far more pronounced, though still vague as intended. Baker looks far more natural on this reissue. Even the back jacket type is far superior and easier to read (plus it’s the original stereo artwork, whereas the OJC uses the mono).

Chet (RLP 1135) an album of ballads tagged below on the back cover as “the lyrical trumpet of Chet Baker”, features in various configurations an ear popping crew of back up musicians including the underappreciated Herbie Mann, Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Bill Evans, Paul Chamber and either Philly Joe or MJQ drummer Connie Kay. I’m assuming the noticeable hum at the beginning of the first side is on the tape because it’s not in my system and doesn’t start until the music begins. Otherwise the transfer is fine, though engineer Jack Higgins chose to put Baker in the left channel instead of centered, leaving a center hole, and the cymbals have lost some of the earlier records’ fine shimmer and extension. Chet is the perfect late Sunday morning record, which is when I’m typing this.

Finally there’s Chet Baker plays the best of Lerner and Loewe (RLP 1152) recorded July 21st and 22nd of 1959, an album of show tunes, mostly from “My Fair Lady”, which at the time was still playing to full houses on Broadway after having originally opened March of 1956. Backing Baker are Mann, Adams, Evans along with Zoot Sims, Bob Corwin (piano on four tunes), with Earl May on bass and Clifford Jarvis on drums.

For some odd reason, engineer Roy Friedman (or perhaps producer Keepnews?) chose to bath (or bury) Baker’s trumpet in watery reverb that puts him on a different planet from the other musicians (until some of the them as well join Baker in the water). It’s annoying, unnecessary and I have no idea why it was done. While the tunes are familiar, the imaginative arrangements by Herbie Mann are often surprising and unusual yet very tasteful. It’s as if Mann conjures out of the small ensemble a ghost big band.

Finally there’s the bonus album of outtakes and alternative takes all of which have previously appeared either as bonus tracks on CD reissues of Chet Baker Sings—It Could Happen to You or on the 1959 LP compilation New Blue Horns. I’m not going to run through them other than to say this: if you buy this set (which I highly recommend you do), please listen to “Everything Happens to Me” on the AAA original LP and then to the 192/24 bit hi-res alternative take on the bonus LP, where all of the delicacy, transparency and ethereal magic has been replaced by coarsened, flat images and a sonic picture so annoying that had this package been digitally sourced in its entirety, I’d have told you to avoid it. Anyone who listens to these two tracks and who still insists that “digital is transparent to the original analog source” has his or her head stuck you know where.

To conclude: this Craft Recordings project represents in every way, from the Kevin Gray Mastering to the RTI presssings to the Stoughton Press “Tip On” Jackets and handsome canvas wrapped slip-case and especially the more than reasonable $124.99 price, reissue perfection.

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antonmb's picture

Thanks for this report, I’ve been looking forward to hearing what you think of this set. One question though (and probably a petty one), at the beginning of your review you state, “For every reason, from mastering to pressing to packaging and annotation—and pricing, Craft’s 5 LP Chet Baker Riverside box scores the highest marks,” and at the end describe it as “reissue perfection,” yet you give it 9s instead of 10s. Wouldn’t 10s be the “highest marks?”

isaacrivera's picture

11 is the highest score. 9 is darn high for Fremer though. I take it to mean this is as high as the recording/tapes can deliver. In absolute terms there are recordings that can deliver even more, those get 10-11.

Michael Fremer's picture
What's on the tape, I think Kevin delivered an 11 but I don't think he recording gets an 11, especially the Lerner and Loewe where the trumpet is drenched in its own reverb.... these numbers are tricky....
Grant M's picture

Michael, do you check all your pressings to see if they are flat? I'm finding many recent copies i'm getting to be dished. I place a new LP on a flat piece of glass or stone countertop when i open it, and 2 of them in my Chet box are about 5mm dished, so dome side up means the edge of the record is off the platter quite significantly. I don't ever seem to hear reviewers mentioning this. About half the Optimal copies i get are badly dished. I had to go out an buy a VinylFlat i've got 100 copies of recent reissues to flatten, and i only seem to buy records pressed at RTI, QRP, and Optimal. Pallas seem to be the only ones not effected by this problem.

raymac1129's picture

I have the yellow vinyl album. I am somewhat new to the world of high quality pressings so be kind. Is that version as good as these or if not, where does it rank in your opinion?

GAAudioLVR's picture

For those of us who bought the 2019 RSD Black Friday release, are these titles coming up soon for individual release?

isaacrivera's picture

I have both and only today noticed. The RSD is from the mono master. The box LP is stereo. They are different. I have not heard the stereo yet, because I thought they were one and the same. But in conversation with others who have, their opinion is the sound is quite different.

GAAudioLVR's picture

I didn't remember the RSD release was mono. I haven't opened it yet.

isaacrivera's picture

I have the Analogue Productions decade and a half reissue of Chet, which far surpasses the OJC, IMHO. It is equalized much brighter than the one included in this box, which in comparison, sounds a lot darker. The hiss is much more pronounced there and, yes, it starts just before the music. It must be on the tape. Fortunately, Alone Together, is such a soulful and beautifully played ballad, that you are immediately drawn in and the hiss becomes meaningless. On first listen I was a little surprised by the "darkness" of this edition, but after the initial surprise, I really like both renditions, by the way, they are different, but equally valid.

Trius's picture

I bought this at the “pre-order price” which still seems to be the listed price of $124.99, so I’m not sure if I saved any money ($25) or not. But that’s not the point of my comment. I have only opened the shipping carton at this point - I’m almost “scared” to unwrap he slipcase, inspect and actually listen. Why? Well, there is a certain side of me that wonders if I should keep the set unopened/new, as an investment. I probably won’t as I seriously doubt any return would be negligible (not much over inflation) and would take years to realize. I will probably take the set into my dealer shop so we can listen there, seeing as how I am in the midst of restoring and upgrading my own table.

I did spring for this (the most important expensive LP purchase I’ve ever made) after reading your original blurb, Michael, so I’m delighted to hear your high praise.