With matinee-idol good looks, supreme skill on the trumpet and the kind of silky sadness in his voice that even angels couldn’t help but weep, Chet Baker was bound to cause a stir when he turned up in LA in the 1950s. An Oklahoma farm boy fresh from a couple of stints in the army and some notable gigs in San Francisco, Chet slipped smoothly into the LA scene and soon became a linchpin in the Cool school of jazz. But like so many talented performers before him, and since, he battled a demon that was never far from his door, an addiction to heroin.
Chet Baker’s story is packed with the kind of stuff that makes Hollywood producers salivate; and indeed a biopic has been on the cards several times with various actors tipped to play him – most notably Leonardo DiCaprio – but so far it’s all come to zip. Thankfully, actor-singer Tim Draxl and journalist Bryce Hallett got together to do something about it, creating the stage musical, Freeway: The Chet Baker Journey. The show debuted in 2010 at the El Rocco Room in Kings Cross and popped up again a year later at a couple of cabaret festivals around the country, but mostly, it became the stuff of legend.
It’s not hard to see why the reviews were so rapturous. This is a beautifully conceived, immaculately executed production. Tim Draxl is sighably sublime as Chet. Yes, he has the movie-star looks but it’s his velvet vocals that are really what sends the tiny hairs on the back of my neck into overdrive as he croons “My Funny Valentine”. It’s as if Draxl is channelling Chet’s melancholy spirit and merging it with his own, rather than attempting to replicate or mimic his sound. There’s even a point, during “Travelin’ Light”, when the emotion of the song actually brings Draxl to tears. It’s a moment that’s pure and sincere rather than staged and contrived.
Segues between the songs into the narrative of Chet’s life are handled with absolute ease. In these moments Draxl speaks to us directly, as if he is Chet, with a wiry spryness that is spellbinding. While these sections convey much about Chet’s early life, his decline in later years and troubles with the law are brushed over. But that’s just fine. It indicates a gentle respect, on behalf of Draxl and Hallett, for Chet the artist rather than the addict. It’s his remarkable music that they wish to showcase rather than ridicule him for his failures.
Of course a show like this couldn’t be a success without a cohort of groovy cats on the instruments and Freeway has them in spades. The seriously tight quartet features a veteran of the scene, Ray Alldridge, who is both the show’s musical director and pianist; drummer Dave Goodman; Dave Ellis on bass; and Warwick Alder, who embodies the other musical aspect of Chet with aplomb, on trumpet. In between smiles and winks, which read like wonderful cheeky in-jokes we’d love to be privy to, the four treat us to a set that’s jam-packed with awesome aural pleasures.
The only question I’m left pondering at the end of this dream of a show is why only three nights? Why tempt Sydney with a mere morsel to nibble on when really we could have chewed on a bone as juicy as this – and sucked the marrow out of it – for weeks or months even? But perhaps that’s the way to keep the legend alive… Keep us “travellin’ light”, until next time.
This review first appeared in Australian Stage July 2012.
Freeway – The Chet Baker Journey
by Bryce Hallett and Tim Draxl
Musical direction by Ray Alldridge