Listening to Duck Baker’s jaunty, insightful interpretations of Thelonious Monk compositions on Duck Baker Plays Monk, my mind immediately conjured Bach. Meaning the way that hearing, say, a well-loved piece for solo violin transcribed to the mandolin in the hands of a Chris Thile causes us to pause and rethink music that we believe we know so well—fresh, with ears ablaze, a knowing smile on one’s face.
That’s how good he is. Though quietly so.
Duck Baker Plays Monk is but one of three newly released—if not necessarily recorded—LPs from this multi-dimensional and highly prolific acoustic guitar picker (they span the years 1973 to 2016), and this marks the first time they’ve been issued on vinyl. (Much of Baker’s work was previously available on either LP or cassette tape, roughly from the Pleistocene age, or more recently CD, from the age of sonic decline.) What strikes me as illustrative of the man’s considerable talent—he also writes about music, and quite well, for this magazine—is just how different each LP is from the other, creating a sort of mini-retrospective showcasing not only Baker’s musical diversity, but also his probing intellect.
This is evident from the get-go, as heard on Les Blues du Richmond, Demos & Outtakes 1973–1979, on the Thompkins Square label. Here, as Duck explains in the liner notes (and occupying Side A) were the then 23-year-old’s first studio-recorded demo tracks, laid down, as the title suggests, in his hometown of Richmond VA. Already a self-assured picker, and flashing the playfulness that remains a hallmark of his music making—check out his brief insert of “I Feel Pretty” into his “Homage to Leadbelly”—one hears the young and mostly unaccompanied Baker bite with relish into ragtime tunes such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Charleston Mad—Charleston,” on which he offers not too bad vocals as well. But then there’s a smattering of free jazz, too, like the abovementioned “Homage to Leadbelly” and “Allah, Perhaps.” Side B consists of outtakes from sessions recorded for The Kicking Mule label in the late 70s. Altogether Les Blues du Richmond is rather like sitting through a delightful set at some disheveled college town coffee house.
In his liner notes to Duck Baker Plays Monk (Triple Point Records), Duck gives ample credit to the many musicians that helped him figure out how to play Monk’s sui generis tunes on guitar. And boy does he play them! Showing his funkier side, the guitarist really captures Monk’s stop, start, stuttering style of slyly introducing, then building a piece, deconstructing it, and rebuilding again, as well as Monk’s delightful sense of rhythm and swing. Over these nine tracks (“Blue Monk,” “Off Minor,” “Bemsha Swing,” “’Round Midnight,” “Light Blue,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Jackie-ing,” “In Walked Bud,” “Misterioso”) Baker bends, slides, snaps, buzzes, and pings ringing harmonics from his strings; he slows, speeds, and practically stops time, all the while bringing a fresh take to these signature tunes. I love Monk, I love this record.A limited-edition vinyl release (300 copies) of 12 tracks, Pareto Sketches (Barcode Records) is also available as an extended 2-CD release of 21 compositions commissioned by an Italian patron of the arts. Here, Duck’s terrific original tunes—again, that word “playful” must be applied—shine with the highly skilled help of fellow guitarists Michele Calgaro, Val Bonetti, Davide Mastrangelo, Luigi Maramotti, and mandolinist Massimo Gatti. These musicians all know each other, and their easy, if highly polished, rapport is evident throughout. In an interesting way the ragtime themes, blues, and immersion in Monk heard in the previous two LPs culminates here through Baker’s unique stylistic voice. Many of the tracks follow a waltz-like rhythm, and indeed flow together with a natural ease that makes them sound rather like one extended—almost Baroque—composition with many movements.
Given the range of dates and sources across these platters, the sound is quite variable. Les Blues du Richmond is intimate if a bit rough around the edges, but it also sounds period-correct and right for Baker’s early work. Plays Monk is a big step up in recording quality. It’s still intimately recorded, but with a far greater level of detail, tonal complexity, and air around the guitar, which is nicely placed smack between the speakers. Baker’s fingerpicking, his mastery of the strings, and his subtle dynamic shading are all very nicely served by the recording. Like the music, Pareto Sketches is the most polished of the bunch, with excellent clarity, air, imaging, and that wonderful sense of sheer pleasure in the creative act that makes Baker such a joy to listen to.