CHET BAKER FESTIVAL featuring HERB GELLER, CURTIS FULLER, HAROLD DANKO, RAY DRUMMOND, KEVIN TURCOTTE and others performing as part of the Gala Fundraiser Concert with special guest CAROL BAKER at the Music Hall (147 Danforth), Friday (September 1), 8 pm. $25-$45. 416-870-8000, www.chetbaker.org. Rating: NNNNN
There have been numerous Chet Baker tribute concerts since the legendary jazz trumpeter's mysterious death in 1988, but never before have so many of his esteemed sidemen gathered together to pay homage to the king of cool as will be in Toronto for the inaugural Chet Baker Festival (September 1 to 3).
The three-day fundraising event, created by Toronto's non-profit Chet Baker Foundation, with proceeds going to jazz education, is just the first of what's intended to be an annual celebration of Baker's musical legacy.
And with the participation of classy cats like Herb Geller, Curtis Fuller, Ray Drummond and Harold Danko joining Bob Mover, Hal Galper, Nicola Stilo and Kevin Turcotte for Friday night's kickoff concert at the Music Hall, bookended by a smokin' closing bash boasting Randy Brecker and Jane Bunnett throwing down with Hilario Duran's Latin Jazz Big Band at the Music Hall Sunday, the festival is off to a very promising start.
That's not even counting Saturday's free six-act salute to Baker at Yonge-Dundas Square from 2 till 11 pm or the Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan tribute at the Rex Hotel at 9:30 pm.
Certainly one of the Chet fest's key players is 77-year-old alto saxophone great Geller, who began trading riffs with Baker in Los Angeles in the early 50s and is now among the last living links to the West Coast sound they both helped create from the ground up.
Geller recognized there was something special about this Baker kid from the first wistful note.
"When I moved back to Los Angeles in 51," recalls Geller from his Toronto hotel room, "I'd go to this jam session at some little joint in North Hollywood where all the best musicians in town would hang out on Monday nights, and that's where I first encountered Chet. Even then he had a very unique sound his lines, his ideas, it was such a heartful expression. Nobody else sounded like him, before or since.
"The amazing thing to me was that he was playing completely by ear. Although he'd know the melody, he had no idea what the chords were, so quite often he'd play the wrong notes. But even when he went to the wrong note, he could instinctively slide up to the right one, so it would seem like that's exactly what he meant to do.
"It was like he was playing by accident, yet he had such impeccable taste and wonderful intonation that whatever he did came out beautiful. And Chet always stayed true to that sound of his right up until the very end."
If anyone would know, it's Geller, who was performing as part of the NDR Big Band that accompanied Baker in his last great concert, in Hanover, Germany, back in 1988, just two weeks before the 58-year-old Baker fell to his death from an Amsterdam hotel room.
Evidently, the original plan for the opening gala concert at the Chet Baker Festival was to recreate that celebrated performance documented on Justin Time's The Last Great Concert, My Favorite Songs, Vol. 1 & 2, with Geller, Danko, Drummond, Fuller and the others accompanied by the 40-plus-piece Canada Pops Orchestra.
But as with Baker's concerts during his troubled life, some last-minute changes have drastically altered the shape of the concert.
"It's been a very, um, complicated process," says Geller diplomatically. "The initial concept for the show, as it was explained to me, was to do something like the Last Great Concert, and there were four trumpet players, two saxophonists and a trombonist lined up along with a symphony orchestra."
However, after Geller went through the NDR archives to dig up the arrangements, photocopied them and sent them out, he learned that the symphony orchestra would not be involved, due to cost considerations.
"So the new idea is to have two different groups of musicians each play a set, which could work out fine if, say, the first set is more intimate and the second steps up the tempo and brings in more brass. I really love Harold Danko's piano playing, so it'll be great to work with him and Bob Mover, whose alto work I really enjoy (and I'm very critical of alto players), as well as Nicola Stilo, who added some wonderful flute parts to one of Chet's recordings. I'm definitely looking forward to this."