Finger-picking Good

Duck Baker explores uncharted territory with his acoustic guitar

When shopping for a Duck Baker album, it can be hard to know which section of the record store to look in. On one record he collaborates with traditional folk singer Molly Andrews, while on another he arranges the songs of underrated post-bop jazz pianist Herbie Nichols. Then there's his Christmas carol collection and his songbook of American gospel music with everything from rural New England hymns to black inner-city spirituals. That's not to mention his numerous instructional videos on how to play swing, bop, reels, and jigs.

If that seems like a lot of ground to cover for a musician who was brought up in Richmond, Va., and currently lives in Richmond, Calif., it's even more amazing that he's been able to paint such broad strokes with only an acoustic guitar. Yet to hear Baker tell it -- and to listen to his growing collection of simple and beautiful originals -- it's all quite natural. "I feel like what I am is an American musician," Baker says. "And I decided that in order for me to do anything worth listening to, I was going to be as thorough as I could. So that's why I've tried to fit into as many different styles as I can."

John Sievert


Performs with Ben Goldberg and Carla Kihlstedt on Friday, Aug. 25, at 8 p.m. at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez (at 23rd Street), S.F. Tickets are $12 advance, $14 door; call 282-2317. He also performs on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50 advance, $15.50 door; call (510) 548-1761.

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Baker belongs to an elite group of fingerstyle guitarists -- including Leo Kottke, Peter Finger, John Renbourn, and others -- who are frequently more recognized in Europe, where the premium is not placed on the singer side of the singer/songwriter equation. In another sense Baker is part of a small crowd of American outsider musicians, among them saxophonist John Zorn and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne (both of whom are friends and collaborators), who challenge tradition even as they relentlessly explore it. Most of all, though, Baker is simply a down-to-earth guy who knows almost everything there is to know about American music.

"Well, I wanted to play fiddle when I was young, but they gave me violin lessons," he says, laughing. "So I got bored with that after a few years. I couldn't relate to the approach, and I couldn't relate to the music they wanted me to play. If I had had fiddle lessons, I might have stuck with it."

Baker is only half-joking; what he really ached to play was the lightning-quick bluegrass music he heard all around him in Virginia. "Within a week of getting a guitar I knew that's what I wanted to do," he says. By that time the '60s were in full swing, and Baker fantasized about being the next Bob Dylan. He learned some of the basic fingerstyle and folk repertoire in a few months, picking it up relatively easily. But before he could join the coffeehouse circuit, he met a slightly older piano player named Buck Evans who completely altered his future.

"He was really important in my life," says Baker. "The older I get, the more I realize how lucky it was that I met this guy. Because he gave me a sort of picture of what American music was ... one kind of music, whether you're talking about blues or bluegrass, ragtime or jazz."

Baker took the message to heart, abandoning his fledgling attempts at blues-based picking and singing, and embracing not just roots music but everything modern as well. He soon found himself haunting his local Sears, picking up anything he could by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. "Then I got into Archie Shepp," he says, "so I got into listening to free jazz in a really big way, and it was natural then as a youngster -- I was 17 or 18 -- to play that. I had no idea about playing bebop, I didn't even have an idea about playing swing. So I started with jazz by playing ragtime and trying to play free jazz."

Within a few years, Baker had begun to cut his own unique swath through American music. Around 1969 he was able to be a liberating influence on another young musician, a 15-year-old guitarist from North Carolina named Tim Sparks. (Sparks eventually won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 1993, the same year he released a highly acclaimed arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite.)

If Sparks had been interested in everything from Doc Watson to Jimi Hendrix, he was trained early on as a classical guitarist, and thought that the two worlds were mutually exclusive. But after hanging around and jamming with Baker, he changed his mind. "Duck was playing a nylon-string guitar, kind of a cheap guitar, and he really exploded all the conventions I had about playing," Sparks says.

"He played fiddle tunes, he arranged Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton tunes," Sparks says. "He played swing tunes, he did stuff that had a real Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy kind of flavor, and then he played noise music. Just all in the space of five minutes, he was traveling through all these different dimensions of guitarism; he had it all worked into one bag."

Baker soon moved from the South to Philadelphia and met pioneers like Chadbourne and Zorn. "I went up and did a few shows with those guys," he says, "and we'd rehearse these impossible things for a week, then we'd go in a loft and play them for like 15 people, and we'd make about $8."

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