Those assessments are confirmed, many times over, on Baker’s new releases. Taken together, the five albums offer a kind of career overview, with many tracks culled from Baker’s archival tapes of previously unreleased studio sessions and live performances, and two albums’ worth of recent recordings.
On Outside (Emanem), we hear Baker in his most avant-garde musical persona, recorded in Turin in 1983, London in 1982, and Calgary in 1977. All but two of the tracks are performed solo, mostly in a free, snapping, angular, and abstract style. But whereas the original composition “Klee” is a tour de force of extended techniques, Baker’s takes on Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” and the Jimmie Davis-Charles Mitchell standard “You Are My Sunshine” make them vehicles for reflective, almost romantic interpretation, with minimal deconstruction. The album closes with two sometimes furious, grin-inducing duets with Eugene Chadbourne from 1977, bristling with pointillist details, musical sparks flying out of Chadbourne’s idiosyncratic compositions.
The County Set (Southern Summer) is a virtual twofer with a gently split personality. The first half, recorded in 1985, is jazz, comprising original compositions and a cover of Monk’s “Misterioso,” all played solo except for a pair of duets with Scottish fiddler Brian McNeill, and two more with saxophonist/clarinetist Dick Lee and bassist Jerry Forde. Also recorded in 1985, the second half is a set of more or less “country” tunes, and it includes Baker arrangements of such traditional material as “Silver Bells” and “Grandfather’s Clock,” pieces associated with Mississippi John Hurt, and dusky Baker vocals on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and O.W. Mayo’s “Blues for Dixie.” Listen to these 25 performances for a broad introduction to Baker’s liberal employment of “folk” fingerpicking.
As he does with jazz and country, Baker sees the blues not as a narrow track but rather as a wide-open playing field. On Shades of Blue (Fulica), that means not only a variegated repertoire—lots of originals, plus renditions of pieces by jazz composers Herbie Nichols (Baker recorded an entire album of Nichols tunes, Spinning Song, 20 years ago), John Coltrane, and clarinetist/alto saxophonist Michael Moore (Clusone Trio)—but also multifarious collaborations. Although the recording quality of the live and studio performances from 2000 to 2013 is inconsistent, the warm tone and precision of Baker’s nylon-string guitar is luminescent in every setting—trios with clarinetist Ben Goldberg and violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and with clarinetist Alex Ward and either John Edwards or Joe Williamson on bass; and duos with Michael Moore, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and guitarist/steel guitarist Ken Emerson.
For immersion in Baker’s purely solo fingerstyle playing, The Preacher’s Son (Fulica) is hard to beat. Conceived in part as a tribute to Davy Graham, it includes Graham’s “Forty Ton Parachute” and a version of Horace Silver’s hard-bop classic “The Preacher,” a staple of Graham’s repertoire. There are Irish and Appalachian fiddle tunes, a bit of gospel, another version of “Maybellene,” and a couple of other vocals. Although Baker doesn’t do many solo concerts anymore, The Preacher’s Son continues the thread that runs through so many of his recordings.
When Baker performs live these days, it is in the jazz-trio format with clarinetist Ward and bassist Edwards, which brings us to Deja Vouty (Fulica). Of the new releases, this set is the most unified—by virtue of being recorded in one studio with one group, and containing 11 originals, all composed in the past five years. Baker employs varied bar structures and time signatures, and in his liner notes he points out allusions to older jazz tunes and musicians: “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low,” Hank Mobley’s “No Room for Squares,” Sonny Clark, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Within this fairly wide scope, however, the locked-in improvising of the trio and the infectious melodic inventions forge a singular identity that is bouncy and fun while complex and occasionally challenging.
On all five new recordings, the soul of that musical identity is Baker’s guitar voice. “I never was trying to sound like any jazz guitarist when I played solos,” he recalled. “I wanted to sound like a cross between Sabicas, Sundaram Balachandar, and Charles Mingus when I was soloing, and maybe a cross between Merle Travis, Blind Blake, and Joseph Spence when I was picking.” Fortunately, we get to enjoy what Baker does sound like on five distinct new albums.