by Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz
Vocalist Jeff Baker — who’d just earned a degree in Music Education — took a risk and put the money he’d saved for grad school into making a CD. That was last year’s Baker Sings Chet Baker (OA2 Records). Baker’s good debut didn’t rise to the level of top-notch excellence of his second outing, Monologue — sophomore jinx be damned.
A good deal of the credit for the step up into the upper class of male vocalists lies with pianist Bill Anschell, Nnenna Freelon’s former musical director. His arrangements here, as well as his playing, just glow, with a light touch at times and a hard-driving forward momentum at others, a sound crafted to perfectly suit Baker’s silky delivery — a vocal cross between Nat King Cole and Chet Baker, with his own personal, confident panache.
The standard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square” here may be the loveliest rendition of the song on record, Anschell and band involved with the vocalist in a lilting dance before Brent Jensen’s sweet-toned alto croons into a solo. Another time-tested standard, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” picks up the pace; Anschell’s fingertip dance down the keyboard at the end of the smooth flow of Baker’s phrase “..and then I met you” is just sublime, as are a hundred other moments.
Two tunes here, “Answer Me” and Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise,” feature David Sabee on cello, with Anschell’s arrangement a less jazzy but beautifully-crafted chamber mood, suffused with reverence, like something that could be played in church, in the muted light of soft colors beaming in through windows of stained glass.
Baker’s vocal style throughout has a straighforward self-assurance and a smooth flow, in contrast to a hint of the tentative on hs debut disc. He goes after some familiar standards and some of the rarer ones without pretense or affectation, and he does it beautifully, in the embrace of a marvelous band.