Jazz vocalist Jeff Baker recruited some of the most respected musicians in jazz for his fifth album, Phrases (OA2 Records), which will be released Jan. 19. Participating in the recording sessions were drummer Brian Blade, trumpeter Marquis Hill, saxophonist Steve Wilson and pianist Darrell Grant, who served as musical director and co-producer.
The album will mark Baker's debut as a composer, with seven of the album's songs featuring his music and lyrics.
Phrases takes its title from Baker's use of what he calls "prompts" that inspire him to compose. These prompts could be from his favorite works of fiction, poetry, and song, among them texts by Pablo Neruda, J.D. Salinger and Salvador Plascencia. Those cues could be no more than a line of poetry or a snatch of dialogue, or a real-life verbal exchange that caught his ear.
"The musical side of composing—creating melodies, reharmonizing music—has always come pretty easy to me," Baker said. "But in attempting lyrics, I always felt burdened by not being Joni Mitchell. How could I express myself without sounding trite or silly? I found that if I gave myself prompts, I could create stories around them and find my voice as a lyricist. My aim was to tell stories in which people could hear their own experiences."
Phrases was recorded in Chicago in May 2017 at Vijay Tellis-Nayak's Transient Sound studio.
Also contributing to the recording sessions were Baker's longtime friends Clark Sommers (bass) and Geof Bradfield (tenor saxophone), as well as young guitarist Gregory Uhlmann, a former student of Jeff Parker.
Baker was thrilled to be surrounded by such stellar company: "Jazz musicians talk all the time about their 'dream bands,' and here I am, getting to record with my actual dream band! I wrote this music with these musicians in mind, and I am beyond humbled that they've agreed to be part of this project."
Born in 1979 in Boise, Idaho, Baker was 13 when the grunge-rock movement became a cultural phenomenon. While his friends were listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Baker was focused on Dizzy Gillespie's 1967 album Live At The Village Vanguard. "It was the best thing ever," Baker recalled. "I learned every song and taught myself to sing with them. Singing jazz, the idea that a vocalist could be an instrumentalist and take the music to different places on a lark, was a real revelation to me. My goal became to be equal and in line with instrumental players."
As a young artist, Baker was enthralled with the work of Mark Murphy, Johnny Hartman and Chet Baker (no relation). The music of Sting and Peter Gabriel resonated deeply with him, as did that of Bonnie Raitt. (Phrases includes an interpretation of "Not Cause I Wanted To," a tune Raitt recorded on her 2012 album, Slipstream.)
Baker attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, on a singing scholarship, sang in the jazz and classical choirs, and studied opera and musical theater. With plentiful opportunities to perform, he continued educating himself as a jazz vocalist. Backed by Idaho musicians, he recorded his 2003 debut, Baker Sings Chet.
This Chet Baker project, released on Origin Records' OA2 imprint, did well enough to enable him to make another record, Monologue, for which Origin head John Bishop hooked him up with versatile Seattle pianist Bill Anschell. It proved to be a fruitful collaboration. Baker and Anschell teamed up on two more acclaimed albums, Shopping For Your Heart (2007) and the gospel-infused Of Things Not Seen (The latter was recorded at the same time as Shopping; it was released with re-recorded vocals in 2009.)
In 2012, Grant, a distinguished member of the music faculty at Portland State University, helped Baker land a position at PSU, where the singer was integral in building what has become a renowned jazz vocal program. Baker also co-founded and is director of the PDX Jazz Forward Competition.
"We live in an incredible time for creative, genre-defying music," Baker said. "Artists like Laura Mvula, Becca Stevens, Jacob Collier, The Fellowship Band and so many others are changing the way we think about jazz and contemporary songwriting. It's a privilege to write and make music at this time. Phrases is my humble contribution to this ever-evolving conversation."