Like countless listeners and lovers around the world, Matt Dusk gets lost in the music of Chet Baker. “It’s usually at night when I’m drinking a bottle of wine with my lady,” says the 34-year-old Toronto crooner. “Pretty soon, my attention turns to her, and, well, I get lost… in other things. And for me, that’s Chet Baker. It’s the perfect soundtrack for an intimate evening together.”
Wine and women aside, it’s Dusk’s love affair with Baker’s music that has lasted years. Dusk — whose romantic fifth studio album My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook pays homage to the tragic balladeer and trumpet player — first fell hard for Baker’s hauntingly unaffected vocals and lyrical horn work in the wee small hours of his teen years.
“When I was growing up, I listened to what normal kids listened to: pop music. But in our house, my parents had the radio tuned to the classical station, however, at night they played jazz,” recalls the former choir boy. “And that’s how I discovered jazz; specifically Chet Baker. I remember saving my allowance, then heading to the record store where I’d rummage through the bins looking for his music. I eventually got a trumpet, learned how to play, but I quickly learned that should left to the professionals! When I made this record, I wanted to go back to my roots and pay homage to the artists who influenced me, one of them being Chet Baker.”
With My Funny Valentine, the JUNO-nominated performer reintroduces and reinterprets Baker’s repertoire for a new generation — and comes home in the process. Recorded in Toronto, Dusk and an 80-piece orchestra are joined by GRAMMY award-winning trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Arturo Sandoval, JUNO award-winning jazz king Guido Basso, Canadian chanteuse Emilie-Claire Barlow and Straight No Chaser alum Ryan Ahlwardt — the 12-song album digs deep into Baker’s vast and varied catalogue. The set list glides seamlessly from lushly appointed signature ballads like Deep in a Dream and the unconditional-love title track, My Funny Valentine, to swinging renditions of standards like Let’s Get Lost, All The Way, Embraceable You and Come Rain Or Come Shine. For Dusk — who produced the album with Terry Sawchuk and Shelly Berger — it was a true labour of love. Emphasis on labour. “It took me almost six months to choose the songs on the record,” he says. “I would only record a song that I knew Chet had either recorded or performed.”
But it’s not simply about ticking boxes on a to-do list. Dusk makes these numbers his own, just as Baker did decades ago. “I have my own voice. That’s why I called the record The Chet Baker Songbook; I didn’t necessarily want to record every single popular song he had done, but rather sing songs that would hopefully move people the way Chet moved me. I wanted to capture the intimacy in my voice the way Chet had done in countless recordings.”
Capturing that intimacy — driven and defined by Baker’s minimalist, lovelorn singing style — didn’t come easy either, he admits. “I’m a natural-born crooner. I come from the school of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, with a very lyrical, full-barreled sound. But Chet’s approach and sound was very different. His voice was soft… almost lilting. He helped me discover a different and softer side of my voice.”
Ironically, the timeless romance and beauty of Baker’s music stand in stark contrast to his dark and troubled life, cut short when the 58-year-old musician plunged from an Amsterdam window in 1988. “Here’s a guy who drank too much, did too many drugs, and still had the ability to sound amazing… almost free. The most incredible thing about his singing was, in my opinion, it was almost a means to an end. He performed like he didn’t care, and it was his nonchalance that actually made him great. As an artist, you’re always trying to think of what to do, but Chet took the approach of, ‘I’m just gonna do what I do.’ With these vocals, I had to take that approach. Not the drugs, of course,” laughs Dusk, “but his free, relaxed way of singing. That scared the crap out of me! It took me weeks just to mentally prepare.”
He needn’t have feared. Truth is, Dusk has spent a lifetime woodshedding for this moment. An alum of St. Michael’s Choir School who studied under legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson at York University, he hit it big with his major-label debut Two Shots, scoring a GOLD record. With the punchier follow-up Back in Town, he upped the ante and took his act to Hollywood’s fabled Capitol Studio A — the home of heroes and influences like Sinatra, Cole and Darin — and worked with renowned arrangers Patrick Williams and Sammy Nestico, plus Grammy-winning engineer Al Schmitt. The album garnered two number one singles: All About Me in Canada and Back In Town in Japan — making Dusk the first male jazz singer to ever top the pop charts. With 2009’s contemporary-based Good News, Dusk indulged his youthful love of pop with an international lineup of songs rendered in styles from Motown and swing to Euro-dance and guitar-rock. The title track Good News went to number one and the album went GOLD.
Even as Dusk respectfully follows in the footsteps of his musical forebears, heroes and influences, at the end of the day he’s his own man on his own creative path. This was captured on his previous release, the 2010 concert CD/DVD Live from Las Vegas, that inevitably leads to his true home: the stage. Whether he’s fronting a sweeping symphony, cutting loose with a big band or leading his longtime quintet, it’s all about creating a connection. “All I want to do is perform,” he says. “I want to get up on stage — not from an egotistical point of view, but to share a moment with the audience. It’s like being at a party where everyone knows the words to the songs, they’re singing along, and are immersed in that moment… I live for that.”
While you wait for Dusk to bring the party your way, take a cue from the man himself: dim the lights, find that perfect spot on your couch, light a candle or two, pour your favourite beverage, and get lost in the music of the one and only Chet Baker.
Wine and women not included.
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