Dave Baker, with Rich Kurtz – Blended (2013)

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That the university-trained, classical inspired guitarist Dave Baker is so handy with interpreting pop sounds should come as no surprise. After all, he found early fame opening for fellow Temple products Hall and Oates on tour.

Blended, however, finds him working in a collaborative place of a different sort, as the Baker is joined by cellist Rich Kurtz – who himself has worked with Chicago’s Peter Cetera, George Benson, Harry Connick Jr. and – in a stint that also included a celebrated appearance at Carnegie Hall – with Shirley Bassey.

And so we have Baker (a student of Benson mentor Dennis Sandole, who also worked with Pat Martino) opening not with some dusty classical piece – or even a jumping jazz item – but with Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” That allows him a romantic scene-setting moment, before Kurtz’s darkly emotional cello enters to add sweeping new colors, and the template for this intriguing project is set. Baker’s delicate yet insistently joyful lines work in brilliant contrast to the swooning asides from Kurtz, creating a far more musical complexity that the typical duo recording.

Train’s “Marry Me,” for instance, is given a tender-hearted solo examination from Baker, before Kurtz rejoins the proceedings for a ruminative run through Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.” Blended continues on in this way, dominated by intriguingly offbeat, deeply resonant takes on pop songs from across a generational perspective.

Still, I was more drawn to the rare original like “Carnival of Lights.” For all of the ways that Baker finds new feelings to plum in classic rock warhorses like Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” (and the version here is really quite lovely), there is only so much tread left on those well-traveled tires. “Carnival of Lights,” with its spritely guitar and swooning cello accompaniment, offers the most complete glimpse yet into the almost telepathic level of communication between these two talented musicians.

U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” one of the great anthems of the 1980s, wouldn’t appear to be all the well suited to this kind of quietly dilated musical atmosphere. Yet Baker, a savvy veteran who has already released seven previous discs on his own DAB Music label since 1995, coaxes out not just the familiar melody, but also a series of chipper timelessly inspired flourishes. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” meanwhile, fits the duet format like ten toes on the edge of a surfboard – as Baker and Kurtz focus on the Beach Boys’ penchant for creating these tiny symphonies of teen-aged angst.

Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” is imbued with perceptive new depths, while “Spanish Eyes” – perhaps most famously interpreted by Al Martino – moves with the powerful attitude of a paso doble. Baker then offers original material over two of the next three songs, girding the second half of Blended with strikingly inventive sounds. “Lay Before the Wind” unfolds with a diaphanous sense of tranquility, while “Laura’s Song” finds the guitarist digging deep for some of the most touchingly resonant sounds on this entire project.

“At Last,” unfortunately, can hardly be resurrected in another voice, as it’s become so closely associated with Etta James. And the rather thin theme from the motion picture “Arthur,” originally a hit for Christopher Cross, doesn’t provide enough of a platform for a meaningful exploration.

But “Us Against the World, sandwiched between the project’s final two Baker originals, moves with a cunning focus, while “Untitled” trickles along like a fast-moving stream. Finally, there are the impish joys of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” – an ageless conceit borne anew all over again via Baker’s fleet-fingered excursions.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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