A spate of new releases by Duck Baker puts the fingerstyle guitarist's eclectic career in perspective.
April 24, 2018
Last year, guitarist Duck Baker went on a binge—of the best sort. In a matter of months, he oversaw the release of five albums of back-catalog and more recently recorded material—The County Set, Shades of Blue, The Preacher’s Son, Deja Vouty, and Outside. Taken together, they provided a grand survey of the many styles the heralded fingerstyle player has embraced over a career that dates back to the early 1970s: blues and jazz of every region and era, American and Irish folk songs, fiddle tunes, free improvisation, and more. I surveyed those releases, and emailed back and forth with Baker (he lives in England) about them, for a story in The Absolute Sound magazine, which you can read here.
In March of this year, Baker, a native of Richmond, Virginia, visited the Bay Area, where he lived for stints in the 1970s and ’80s and from 1996 to 2003. His appearance on my radio show on KPFA 94.1 FM and his concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley coincided with the release of yet three more albums—Pareto Sketches (Barcode Records), a double-CD of commissioned Baker compositions played mostly by other guitarists; Duck Baker Plays Monk (Triple Point Records), a vinyl LP of Baker performing Thelonious Monk tunes; and Les Blues Du Richmond: Demos and Outtakes 1973–1979 (Tompkins Square), a CD and LP collection of previously unreleased tracks from the period when Baker emerged as a fingerstyle force to be reckoned with on Stefan Grossman’s Kicking Mule label.
“I am pleased with everything about it,” Baker said of Plays Monk during our radio conversation. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.” Monk was one of Baker’s earliest jazz influences. “I was a kid thinking I wanted to be a musician and I thought, I’ve got to understand this Thelonious Monk guy that everybody talks about,” he said. “You knew somehow that Monk was it. I went and bought a record, the Columbia album called Misterioso. I did not understand two notes of it, but I loved it.” You hear that love, and Baker’s hard-earned deep understanding of Monk, on the nine performances, which include “Blue Monk,” “Misterioso,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Round Midnight,” and other Thelonious classics.
The Tompkins Square anthology reveals a young guitarist who felt unconstrained by idiomatic boundaries, especially after he left Richmond, fell in with bluegrass, swing, and free-jazz musicians in San Francisco, and traveled to England, where, Baker explained, “I might visit Derek Bailey in the daytime and then go out to a pub that night and listen to Irish music. In those days, I was young and fierce, trying to play like Archie Shepp with a nylon-string guitar. Genre-bending—I took it seriously.” One track on Les Blues Du Richmond, “Homage to Leadbelly,” finds Baker interlacing “Midnight Special” and “I Feel Pretty” (from West Side Story) with internecine passages of avant-garde free improv. “This kid had some strange ideas,” Baker said about his younger self. “The imagination had to work overtime.”
Although Baker does play steel-string guitar, he more often performs and records on a nylon-string flamenco guitar. “My technique is more steel-string, except when I’m playing those fast single-note runs, where I’m trying to sound like a saxophone,” he explained. “But I was attracted to the speed and the edge and the feel that the flamenco guys had. It’s a very different sound than you get on a steel-string.”
If you are somehow unfamiliar with Duck Baker’s music, now is the time to mind the gap and make up for lost time, with a plethora of entry points newly made accessible—for fans of guitar music of almost any stripe.
Photo by Peter Gannushkin
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