It's a Duck Baker Two-fer! Roots & Branches of American Music and The Waltz Lesson (2009)

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by Pico

Duck Baker, as we noted here earlier this year, is a virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist. That last release, Everything That Rises Must Converge, showcased only a very small sliver of Baker’s passions. He can get enthused for artists ranging from George Jones and Andrew Hill to Clarence White and parlay his enthusiasm on an unadorned acoustic six string guitar without diluting the spirit of the music, no matter how straightforward or complex the music is.

In fact, Baker is more than a guitar player, he’s a true scholar of music. Before he even gained repute as a musician, he was known as a writer. He’s delved into music reviews, music articles, satirical pieces and liner notes for records, including most of his own. Heck, never mind any desire to play a six string as well as Baker, I’d just settle for his authoring acumen!

With such a diverse collection of records issued since 1976—20 under his own name and a half dozen more as part of a duo—Duck hasn’t anywhere near reached the end of topics to record as albums. This month, just three months after Everything, he’s unveiling two more albums with two more interesting topics, and both are worth exploring. Here’s a quick rundown on each:

The Roots & Branches of American Music

Since Baker is a dedicated student of 20th century American music, you would expect him to explore and celebrate the building blocks of that music and The Roots & Branches of American Music does just that. In these sixteen songs, he runs through a remarkably distinct mix of songs stretching all the way back to the eighteenth century and includes one original, “A Thousand Words.” The rest of the songs originated primarily either in Europe or in the States, but all provide insight on the origins of jazz, country, blues, gospel, and all of the forms of music that later came from these.

There’s traditional Irish tunes (“Sergeant Early’s Dream/Chief O’Neill’s Favorite Hornpipe”), early jazz (“Buddy Bolden Blues”), deeply rooted advanced jazz (“Blue Monk”), spirituals (Somewhere Around A Theme”) and Appalachian (“Wink The Other Eye”/Buffalo Gals”). Baker even adds his singing to a couple of tracks, the Western Swing “Don’t Be Afraid Of Your Age” and Jack Teagarden’s early jazz number “Say It Simple.”

The best known number, however, might be Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Baker deftly adapts a piano arrangemenT—Buck Evans’ arrangement—to his guitar, incorporating the sophisticated syncopation and natural swing of the original. All told, The Roots & Branches of American Music might not cover all the critical touchstones in the development of roots music (that would take a box set of CD’s to do that), but it’s a music history lesson that’s makes for an agreeable listen.

The Waltz Lesson

On this record, Baker, accompanied by a clarinet and stand-up bass, stays within the jazz idiom. The ambition of The Waltz Lesson might be more focused than The Roots but reaches no lower heights. Accompanied by Brits Alex Ward (clarinet) and Joe Williamson (bass), the focal points are Baker’s compositional skills and the interplay amongst the three. The jazz is of a gently swinging style, and a departure from the avant garde pedigree of Ward and Williamson, but these guys are well-versed in the simpler forms presented here.

Baker’s composition exhibit an appreciation for the blues evident in most of jazz, but consistent with his strong connection with so many forms of music, these songs show the stylings of early jazz, swing, bop, folk, and probably a few extra elements snuck in without my noticing. The appearance of the quaint clarinet might signal pre-war jazz, but Ward’s blackwood playing is light on the syrupy sweetness often associated with this instrument and displays some nimble bop technique, especially on faster tunes like “Tiziano” and “Baker’s Dozen.” Williamson’s bass makes up for the lack of percussion with a deep, resonant footprint. Baker himself gets to stretch out more as an improviser, a role he clearly relishes when he attacks the strings with hard swing, as in songs like “Friday” and the catchy 3/4 time title tune. There’s a couple of well-chosen covers, as well: John Coltrane’s “Mr. Syms,” a refreshing alternative from the obvious Trane choices, and the old standby “Sweet & Lovely.”

The Duck Baker Trio, as this ensemble is called, isn’t the typical jazz trio, and it doesn’t set out to revolutionize jazz. But as evident on Waltz Lesson, the craftsmanship in both the performances and the compositions are things that never go out of style.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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