Rewind: Daniel Wang on “Ballads For Two”

Posted: March 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Daniel Wang on “Ballads For Two” by Chet Baker and Wolfgang Lackerschmid (1979).

Can you remember how you became aware of Chet Baker? Was it a certain time and place?

It must have been in the mid 1990s, I was about 26 or 27. I tried listening to jazz in an academic way when I was at university, age 18 or 19… I had some cassettes from Duke Ellington and Miles Davis at that time, not much else. I did not know how to appreciate jazz at that time. I got into Chet Baker only after I started making house tracks and realizing that what I was really seeking was in “soul music”, this beautiful floating, sometimes melancholic feeling which you would hear in great saxophone and trumpet solos, either in disco songs or in “jazz funk classics”. My boyfriend at the time smoked marijuana very heavily, and he would try to play guitar with a feeling similar to Chet Baker’s. He often spoke about Chet’s heroin addiction and how Chet’s music embodied this floating, otherworldly “high” (from the drug).

Why did you choose “Ballads For Two”? What makes this album so important for you?

Well, it is a bit arbitrary for the sake of this interview. There are so many great albums from him and great jazz albums in general. But me, I always especially liked the sound of vibraphones, and also of Fender Rhodes electric pianos and wooden marimbas. I studied marimba for a year as a child. These are all percussive instruments which still have a clear tonality which are very unique among other instruments. And I believe strongly in “serendipity” – you know, chance encounters, random choices which have nice results. I saw this album in an old used-CD shop in Dublin. I didn’t know what it was, it was just a surprise-discovery. Too much jazz is recorded with the standard piano- bass- and drum set… Another great album is “From Left to Right”, which was Bill Evans playing Fender Rhodes in 1975 or so. Aside from composition and performance, sheer uniqueness of tonality (timbre) is also very important in music, don’t you agree?

Very much so. Actually the title of the album is very apt. It is just a dialogue of trumpet and vibraphone, and it sounds very intimate to me. How would you describe the interaction of the two musicians? Are their instruments a perfect match in this setting?

Exactly — intimate dialogue is the perfect description. I think the instruments are well matched. However, I will confess, I often reduce the treble (high EQ) by about 30% when I listen to this album. Maybe this mutes the breath noises and the high frequencies and puts a nice “mist” over the whole thing. Like fading a photograph from bright colours SLIGHTLY to whites and greys…

Are there highlights on the album, or songs you don’t like as much as others, or do you prefer to listen to it as a whole?

I don’t have the album with me right now as I reply, but I love the first number, “Blue Bossa”. It sounds to me like 2 old friends who meet after maybe 20 or 30 years of absence and they exchange stories about each others’ lives. The trumpet is lyrical and melancholic, the vibraphones are a bit orderly and friendly and eager, they play 2 different roles in a dialogue. The 2nd song always seems a bit sad to me. Love the other songs too, but I won’t describe each one here.

Around the time the album was recorded Baker’s drug problems were comparably in check, even if he couldn’t sing anymore, and he lived mainly in Europe. What might have led to this collaboration? Do you think it was a gun for hire situation, or could it have been constellation Baker was actively looking for?

I really don’t know the details! But I think Chet did it not only for the money. It sounds very purposeful. I suppose he was living in Amsterdam, but Germany is right next door, and Germany (as I have discovered here) has quite a number of underrated jazz musicians and great studio spaces and sound engineers. My favourite vocal harmony albums of all time, by The Singers Unlimited, were all recorded in the Black Forest in the 1970s, by the man whose father built the famous SABA speakers and studio systems. I think great labels and studio engineers can ignore commercial demands and create a space for artists to just do their own thing — this is an obvious strength in European jazz recordings. They are not always trying to sell to a huge market, like corny commercial jazz in the 1980s (like Kenny G.). By the way, I have nothing against Chet’s drug addiction. If he were your dad or brother that would be hard, but you have to let artists live their own destiny, and judge them by their artistic output. Unless they become really violent and crazy!

Baker and Lackerschmid seem to complement each other very well musically, they really sound like an item. Baker seemed to enjoy working with other musicians, especially when he could revive his career in Europe. Is he a perfect collaborator?

I don’t know if he is a perfect collaborator. It always takes “two to tango”. I bet he was good with Lackie because they seem both quiet, introspective types. Great jazz musicians are ALWAYS those who know how to listen to others as well as play (and not just show off how fast they can play tone scales).

Baker and Lackerschmid continued to work together, but with additional musicians. Listening to their other recordings I could not help missing the sad tenderness of “Ballads For Two”. It almost seemed to me as if they should have remained unhindered by other musicians. Is the addition of other instruments inevitably distracting form the purity of their sound? Could another constellation achieve this quality?

I don’t have the other CDs, but I’m glad you’re telling me that “Ballads” is the best one! Ha Ha! I think a lot of the best music is the pure sort — Singers Unlimited also worked with bands, arrangers and other musicians, but most critics feel that their best and most essential work was just their Acapella albums. Often the best music is the music that you write alone, for yourself. It is not the broadest range or most clever fiction, but usually it is the most honest expression. Most of Erik Satie’s music has that quality, of course, even if it was not the most harmonically sophisticated. Or let’s talk about modern pop music: I am a fan of George Michael now after his WHAM! period — his 1996 album sounds like just him and a guitar. He and Elton John are bickering lately, and almost EVERYTHING Elton does has a cheapness about it, like Elton’s persona. It seems to be a very technically talented person who doesn’t know how to look inside himself. Songs like “Nikita” or “Candle in the Wind” are ugly because they sound so calculated. Sorry, what do these two guys have to do with Chet Baker? Well, it’s all about music and purity and cults of persona and blah blah blah!

Are there other Chet Baker recordings you like as much as “Ballads For Two”?

I have about 12 or 15 Albums and CDs from him, I think. The early vocal albums – him singing jazz standards – are charming but pretty unsurprising now. The one with a big Italian string section is pretty, but all that luxury sounds a bit absurd and silly because the essence of Chet is a kind of noble poverty and asceticism, which is the opposite of music for cocktails and fashionable Milanese boulevards. Oh — there is one from about 1980 which I love? I think it is called “Walkin’”. And maybe he also does a version of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”: It is just this minimal, raw, slightly sad, long long recording, like a journey without end, into the night. I used to play it before I fell asleep at night. It is the aural equivalent of a wilted Japanese Zen garden. But in the best way.

How would you place “Ballads For Two” in his body of work?

“A bright gem in a box of many treasures.” I am sounding like a really corny jazz critic here. And I am no expert, just a music lover.

Obviously Chet Baker was always a fascinating character, whose hipster and drug addict lifestyle distracted a lot of attention from his actual talent as a musician, as with many other jazz musicians. Do you think he suffered from this image? Is the sharp contrast of his introvert music and his excessive lifestyle part of his appeal?

Well, we all know that not only Rock Stars build their careers on image. If you didn’t watch a certain famous Minimal Techno DJ drinking all that beer and tossing his drug-paralyzed wrists around, and only listened to his music, you would probably find it all a bit monotonous after 15 minutes. If people don’t listen to music, but they still want to worship their stars, they have to find a reason, don’t they? Personally, I feel, real music lovers are not so concerned with Chet’s drug addiction; he played already brilliantly in the 50s, before Amsterdam and all. People also spoke also a lot about his good looks — in the 60s, he was voted more popular than Miles Davis in the US Magazine “Downbeat”.  I heard that he lost his front teeth because he got into a fight: a girl was flirting with him after a gig and her boyfriend got jealous of Chet Baker and roughed him up. But some theories say, that’s why his singing has this breathy, whispering tone. In the end, when I listen to Chet’s recordings, it’s really just his music that interests me. I don’t listen to disco because I like wearing sequins or Gucci loafers. I like the rhythms and arrangements. Same with Chet: if his tone and phrasing weren’t so beautiful, he wouldn’t remain so popular still.

I had the impression that he managed to resurrect his status as an artist, but now his legacy is probably more associated with the way Bruce Weber portrayed him in “Let’s Get Lost” than with what he actually played on albums like this. Is it time to get rid of the biography, to concentrate more on what he was able to do in spite of his troubled background? Or does one not go without the other?

I always found Bruce Weber a very superficial artist anyhow: his sort of fascist black and white images of perfect bodies, of perfect homoerotic WASP youth in America. So of course his treatment of Chet Baker is also reduced to superficial imagery. Compare Bruce Weber to great lively photographers like Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Robert Doisneaux. Those people captured nuance, weakness, tragedy, joy, life lived. They would have been better to make the film about Chet. So I would say, just ignore Bruce Weber (his photos AND film) and listen to the music!

While listening to the album for the first time, the way Baker plays reminded me of the way Burt Bacharach uses the trumpet in some of his compositions. Is my mind playing tricks on me? Is the trumpet more beautiful with sad songs than with joyful ones?

Some music theorists would argue that the loveliest melodies in the world are ALL written MOSTLY in minor keys.  There is rarely a truly gripping, heart-wrenching melody written all in major keys. I’m not going to discuss the possibly vulgar aspects of Wagner and Sturm und Drang here. You know the phrase from classical Japanese literature “Mono no Aware” — which translates roughly to “The Beauty in the Sadness in the Impermanence of All Things”. I think Bacharach songs definitely all have this wistful melancholy in them too — and that makes them great — I remember reading one music critic who said “Bacharach translated the melancholy of jazz into easy-listening for the living rooms of the new American bourgeoisie of the 1960s”.

Is there similar music you like to listen to? Are you even generally attracted to this kind of melancholic gentleness?

The entire canon of Bossa Nova is based on this “Saudade”, isn’t it? This sort of melancholy, solitude, but with a tropical touch. Honestly, I’m known better as a disco DJ than a jazz critic, and a lot of disco music arrangement owes a legacy to “Sturm und Drang” and “Bavarian Umpah Umpah” as well. Salsoul, Stravinsky, Wagner. The Village People makes you feel like a big gay marching army, it’s pompous and grandiose and quite energetic. Even Chic’s greatest hits didn’t all rely on minor keys. And then other great disco songs, like the ones written by Ashford and Simpson (“Stay Free”, “Bourgie Bourgie”), have that gentle sophisticated melancholy. So I think it depends on the context. Soft melancholy is great dinner music, but in all honesty, I think we enjoy many modes of music, we just don’t always notice it or admit it.

As a producer and DJ, you are usually associated with other, more club oriented music. Is there something sounding like this in you? Could you imagine doing something like “Ballads For Two” yourself?

Well, on my NEXT album… if I ever finish it… it won’t just be disco, it will be quite introspective and narrative as well. There will be beautiful theremin recordings, and me singing slow harmonies about people and places I know. But this WILL take some time to record.

Sounds Like Me 03/10

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