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Finger-picking Good 

Duck Baker explores uncharted territory with his acoustic guitar

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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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."


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."

While such tepid responses convinced Baker that he should stick with his growing reputation as a swing and ragtime player, he never stopped experimenting. In the early '70s he spent time in San Francisco, and befriended guitarist Thom Keats and future Rova Saxophone Quartet members Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin. Keats taught Baker to play swing chords; Ackley played him Herbie Nichols' long-out-of-print records.

By that time Baker was recording folk and jazz music for Stefan Grossman's Kicking Mule Records. During frequent tours of Europe, he also became adept at traditional Irish folk tunes. In fact, he was absorbing so much new material, he says, that "I went through five years in my 20s where I never wrote a tune. I was just learning stuff."

Baker emerged from that intense learning period with a deeply internalized sense of all forms of American music, one that he was able to draw on when he began writing his own songs again. That experience is clearly shown on masterpieces like "Pharaoh's Army" from his 1993 release Opening the Eyes of Love. In the song, Baker's deft touch sets in motion both plucky rhythm and sweet melody in a style reminiscent of stride piano (whence swing was born), but adapted to the folk vernacular.

At this point, Baker was finally ready to tackle a Nichols project that Zorn had commissioned him to undertake in 1997. "Studying that Herbie stuff [made me see] just how huge the harmonic area is that hasn't been explored," he says. "There's all kinds of things you can do. You can go completely outside organized music in all kinds of ways that are atonal, but I have to say the area that keeps coming back is this in-between area that's between tonality and atonality."

In putting together the Nichols album, Baker turned to clarinetist Ben Goldberg, who had already worked out some of the charts. Goldberg believes Baker hit that in-between area perfectly. "I love that record," he says, "because it's completely natural, kind of like from two not-too-closely-related perspectives. It's a great fingerpicking record -- if you're not paying attention it just sounds like folk music or something, just the quality of it. And then you listen in another way, and it sounds like a great record of all those Herbie Nichols compositions. I can't imagine anybody but Duck pulling it off."

Goldberg was delighted with the opportunity to play some of those arrangements, as well as Baker's own tunes, especially as he had already been exploring traditional music with guitarist John Schott. He describes Baker as "a guy with a vision that encompasses music without making a distinction between how you play jazz and how you play folk music. A lot of people talk about blending different styles ... but with Duck, it's a lot bigger than that, a lot deeper than that. He's a guy who knows a lot about music, has worked with a lot of music, enough that he has his own vision of things."

Tin Hat Trio violinist Carla Kihlstedt feels the same way. She met Baker several years ago at an infamous Venue 9 show with Eugene Chadbourne. Kihlstedt and Baker were sitting in when the bass player decided it behooved him to smash Chadbourne's favorite guitar. When an audience member suggested he break his own, he complied. Even amidst the chaos, Kihlstedt could tell how amazing a guitarist Baker was. "His playing is just so beautiful," she says. "It's such an interesting blend of very straightforward and very simple and grounded and complex in really unpredictable ways."

During two shows this weekend, Baker will perform his own compositions in a trio with Kihlstedt and Goldberg. Beyond that, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that he's venturing back into uncharted musical territory. Later this fall he'll rehearse some music with trombonist Roswell Rudd, the former Shepp sideman who just cut a magnificent album with Steve Lacy. Baker would also like to explore the music of Charles Mingus and the piano compositions of underappreciated artists Andrew Hill and Elmo Hope.

As for his place in the pecking order of fingerstyle guitarists, neither Baker nor his former protégé Sparks thinks that's very important. "Duck focuses on shit that's really true, that tells the truth but also really tries to hew to some aesthetic honesty," Sparks says. "That doesn't mean it has to be really hard or complex." It's just what he calls it: American music.

About The Author

David Cook

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