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Music instructor riffs on Chet Baker in new film about the jazz legend’s life

Kevin Turcotte aims for interpretation instead of imitation in the Baker biopic Born to Be Blue.

By MICHAEL RANCIC | MAY 30 2016

At its core, jazz is improvisational, so it’s fitting that a film about a jazz legend would avoid a strict reproduction of the music. With Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of Chet Baker, filmmaker Robert Budreau and composer David Braid made the bold decision to forgo using Baker’s recordings, opting instead to let York University’s Kevin Turcotte handle trumpet duties.

York University’s Kevin Turcotte serves as a musical stand-in for Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue.
York University’s Kevin Turcotte serves as a musical stand-in for Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue. Photo by Carolyn A. McKeone.

Mr. Turcotte, who has taught jazz brass at York for just over a decade, previously played trumpet on the films Pictures at the Beach and Bruiser. But for Born to Be Blue, he says the process was a departure, with the score being recorded before the film was even shot.

“It was a bit unusual that the actors would have to create the film around our finished score,” he says, especially with Mr. Turcotte’s performance so central to the narrative.

The film (shot coincidentally in Mr. Turcotte’s hometown of Sudbury, Ontario) features a beating Baker endures at the hands of a drug dealer. The attack knocks out several of Baker’s teeth, damages his embouchure and nearly kills his career. So, not only was it essential that Mr. Turcotte sound like Baker, played by Ethan Hawke, he also had the challenge of channelling Baker as he relearns how to play the trumpet.

Mr. Turcotte says he didn’t listen to a lot of Baker’s recordings to prepare for the film. He focused instead on capturing “a certain melodious architecture to the way he phrases and improvises.” The approach allowed Mr. Turcotte to sound like Baker without copying the jazz great note for note. That freedom made it easier to perform according to “what the director was imagining as far as Chet’s playing ability on any given take of a song,” he says. So while Mr. Turcotte had a “pure Chet sound” in his toolbox, he also worked on varying it to reflect that period of recovery and relearning, altering “how airy or how pinched the trumpet sound was depending on what condition his chops were supposed to be in.”

The Juno Award-winning musician notes how well the jazz quartet gelled while recording full band arrangements for the film. He says the band – which also featured the film’s composer, Mr. Braid, on piano, plus bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clark (both of whom actually played with Baker) – “created the authentic and appropriate jazz setting that allowed my trumpet and Ethan’s vocals the opportunity to strive for that Baker sound.” Mr. Turcotte notes that the group meshed so well that they “hope to do some more playing as a quartet as the movie gets released in other countries.”

Listen to Mr. Turcotte’s interpretation of “My Funny Valentine”

And here is Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine”

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