To describe Duck Baker as a well-rounded musician would be a understatement. Equally comfortable playing ragtime, blues, acoustic finger-style or jazz, the legendary Baker is what's commonly known as a guitarist's guitarist.
This Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, the Tompkins Square label will release Baker's "Les Blues Du Richmond," an archival album of early demos and outtakes, many of which were recorded here in Richmond.
The author of a dozen books of guitar transcriptions and host of an almost equal number of instructional finger-style guitar DVDs, the versatile Baker has released albums of Thelonious Monk arrangements for acoustic guitar alongside collections of Irish fiddle music. He may also be the only person on earth to have collaborated with John Zorn and released a Christmas album.
A virtuoso in every sense of the word, the 68-year old Baker, who now lives in San Francisco, isn't resting on his laurels—he has already released three LPs in 2018 alone and says he plans on getting back to Richmond sometime in the next year.
Style: You grew up in Richmond. Were you born here?
Baker: I was born in D.C. When I was seven we moved to Warsaw, Virginia, because my dad was the preacher at St. James's Episcopal Church on Franklin Street. I lived in Richmond from the late '60s until about 1973.
The photos on the front and back sleeve of "Les Blues Du Richmond" were taken here in town, right?
Yes, not very far from Maymont, by a photographer named Lynn Abbot.
Your early records appeared on Stefan Grossman's seminal Kicking Mule label. How did you hook up with Grossman?
In the spring of 1973, when I was living in Richmond, I made this demo. Later that year, after moving out to San Francisco, I sent it to Stefan Grossman at Kicking Mule, and he said "Yeah, we'll make a record." And I thought "Oh wow, my life is gonna change now." And it did, but not in the way I envisioned it. I was making less money [with music] than I did working construction, but I think that's part of it, and that kind of thing tempers the steel a bit. A lot of people want to be musicians, but a lot of them come to their senses.
Well, I'm glad you didn't come to your senses.
Ah, well, by the time I might have, it was way too late. So I had this demo tape, some of which I later rerecorded for the early Kicking Mule records. Then a few years ago I got in touch with Josh [Rosenthal] at the Tompkins Square label and pitched him some more recent things, but he said "Ah, I like archival stuff. Whaddya got?" So I told him about this demo tape.
Artists like Pentangle and Sandy Bull were flirting with jazz as early as the mid-'60s, but Kicking Mule to my ears was one of the first labels to seriously explore traditional jazz within the larger context of acoustic guitar music. What were you listening to around the time you made your first records?
Well, when I was a kid, you had jazz on the radio: "Take Five," Lee Morgan, things like that. Growing up in the South you could hear all the music you could have wanted at the switch of a dial. My first experience was playing in rock and blues bands in Richmond, but then I started getting into more acoustic music. A ragtime piano player named Buck Evans got me listening to early jazz. And then a year later, around 1967, I started getting into free jazz. I thought Archie Shepp was the greatest thing in the world. And then everybody started talking about Thelonious Monk, so I took three of my hard-earned dollars down to Sears and bought "Misterioso." I took it home thinking "Oh god, I wasted three dollars, because I won't understand this." And I started listening, and I was right: I didn't understand it, but I thought it was great. It took me less than half a minute to just say "Man, this stuff is wonderful." And I've felt like that ever since. And so I was listening to all this stuff from early jazz to really modern free jazz, and then slowly, over the next few years, I started tying those things together.
You recently released an album of Thelonious Monk tunes, which followed an instructional DVD of Monk tunes arranged for the acoustic guitar. What is it about Monk that speaks to you?
I remember something Roswell Rudd told me. He said "If you think about the musician in jazz history who took the biggest step forward, Monk who was there at the beginning of the bebop thing with Parker and Gillespie, and then he took a whole other step, and beyond that he was completely on his own." No other jazz musician took anything like that big step. Considered in that way, Monk is definitely the greatest genius in jazz.
You recorded the songs on the first half of this release when you were only 23 years old. When you listen back now, do you recognize the guitar player on these tunes?
(Laughs.) It's very interesting for me to go back and listen to the way I did things. I'm a completely different musician now, so it's almost like listening to somebody else play and thinking "Wow, that kid's got some wild ideas."