In the used LP basement at Plan 9 in Carytown, expatriate Richmonder and finger-style guitarist Duck Baker flips through the used bins with obvious delight. Amongst avant-garde exploration, Dixieland revival, '50s Blue Note reissues, well-worn gospel and field recordings of traditional Irish reels, Baker selects and discards, building an eclectic stack of purchases.
“Even in the best of times,” he confides, “there are far more bad recordings than good ones.”
Baker's omnivorous taste and impeccable technique are captured in a varied body of work. He has no fewer than four CDs being released in 2009, notably “The Roots and Branches of American Music” which persuasively combines solo renditions of old-timey, Celtic folk, ragtime and modern jazz in the same package. Almost simultaneously he's releasing three more recordings: a traditional and jazz set with his London trio (“The Waltz Lesson”) and two sets of free jazz improvisations — one solo (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”) and the other a set of duets (“Duck Palace”).
The Village Voice once said of Baker “he can go from the Mississippi Delta to the rings of Saturn,” but the guitarist insists he hears the same cry and rhythm in the high-lonesome hillbilly folk of Roscoe Holcombe and the iconoclastic jazz of Ornette Coleman. “It's all the same music,” Baker insists.
Although he now lives outside London, Baker grew up in Richmond and cut his musical teeth in a set of rock bands, including the Actual Mushroom, a band whose single, quasi-legendary 1967 performance set the high water mark for Richmond psychedelia. (“I'm glad there was no YouTube or camcorders in those days,” Baker says. “I'd hate to have people now seeing how I played then.”) More important for his long-term career were the people he met on the local coffeehouse scene, who introduced him to ragtime and the blues. “I started to exclude rock 'n' roll and started focusing on everything else,” he says.
He became a master of finger style — plucking strings directly with fingertips and fingernails, opening a wide range of musical textures and effects as well as the simultaneous performance of multiple melodic lines. Finger style allows the guitar some of the flexibility of the piano — a capability admirably demonstrated on “Spinning Song,” Baker's critically acclaimed transcriptions of bebop cult pianist Herbie Nichols.
After leaving Richmond for the first time in 1968, he's lived everywhere: Vancouver, British Columbia, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia and places in between, with occasional returns to his native state. He moved to England in the mid-'90s, attracted by the music, the relatively low cost of living and, important for a musician, free and high quality health care. In his travels he's forged deep relationships with players across the musical spectrum, taught and mentored other players, and started a second career as an insightful and influential music critic, becoming widely respected, if not exactly rich and famous.
“There just isn't enough work because there isn't enough interest in music,” Baker says. “But I am making a living, doing what I want to do. And musicians do a whole lot better than dancers, writers or visual artists.”
It helps that he does what he does better than almost anyone else on the planet. As for an upcoming Ashland performance, he promises to stay away from esoteric free jazz, but anything else can be in the mix. “I hear it all as one thing,” Baker says, “and I am just trying to play all of it. The objective is to make everyone feel better — including me.” S
Duck Baker plays Ashland Coffee and Tea on Thursday, July 16, at 8 p.m. Admission is $8. Call 798-1702 or visit www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com.
CORRECTION: In the original version of this story we incorrectly identified Roscoe Holcombe as Roscoe Mitchell.