Review: Freeway - The Chet Baker Journey Live

Sydney Opera House, 20th July 2012

Reviewed by John Shand in The Sydney Morning Herald, 23rd July 2012

Glorious songs lift homage to fragile star

IN THE 1950s Chet Baker was jazz's pin-up boy. He absorbed New York's blazing bebop, and responded with restrained, lyrical, Los Angeles trumpet playing. When he took to singing, his voice was unfashionably light and boyish, but disarmingly candid and affecting.

Written by Bryce Hallett and Tim Draxl, Freeway is as fine a piece of cabaret as has been hatched in Australia. Already good when it premiered in 2010, it has banished any slight awkwardness in the interaction between the spoken-word material and the glorious songs associated with Baker.

The information imparted by Draxl - who also stars - colours and contextualises the songs. When he becomes Baker he draws us into the mind of the man who produced such music; who, perhaps too delicate a spirit to endure a ruthless world, found solace in heroin.

While Draxl does not seek to impersonate Baker when singing, the natural timbre of their voices is eerily similar. Draxl's could ride high on the slightest puff of a rhythmic updraught, and float across bar-lines as serenely as a hot-air balloon might traverse craggy ranges.

He phrased My Funny Valentine so each note was a little climax, while the feeling remained relaxed. Like Baker he eschewed drilling home emotions, instead using coolness and restraint to compound poignancy, as did Warwick Alder in his trumpet playing.

You Don't Know What Love Is began with ghostly piano from Ray Alldridge, against which Draxl's voice was at its most fragile, echoed by the vulnerability seeping from each trumpet note.

These Foolish Things had singing to shame most of our specialist jazz vocalists over lovely, cascading piano figures. The starkness of The Thrill Is Gone was intensified by Dave Goodman's diaphanous drumming, and Dave Ellis's bass solo on Born To Be Blue was magnificent in its invention, honesty and luxuriant sound.

Although Draxl may be a more assertive singer than Baker, the show generated that singular combination of emotional brittleness and tender romance.

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