Saturday, June 14, 2014

Duck Baker 13 questions

DUCK BAKER is one of the most highly regarded fingerstyle guitarists of his generation. He is unique among jazz guitarists in that his repertoire spans the entire history of the music from ragtime through swing to modern masters like Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols to free improvisation.
Baker’s devotion to American music also encompasses more traditional forms like blues, gospel, and Appalachian music and its Scots-Irish ancestry. This catholicism has been likened to Europeans who perform the classical repertoire from renaissance through to modern music.

with John Renbourn

Duck was born Richard R. Baker IV in 1949 and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He passed his teenage years playing in rock and blues bands before becoming interested in acoustic blues. Local ragtime pianist Buck Evans was a major influence on Baker’s evolution. By the time he moved to San Francisco in the early seventies, he was performing the wide range of material heard on his first record for the Kicking Mule label, “There’s Something for Everyone in America”. In addition to developing his solo style, Baker joined a bluegrass band and immersed himself in the local swing jazz scene, forming a duo with guitarist Thom Keats and performing with such Bay Area luminaries as Burt Bales and Robin Hodes. Baker remains active in this music, leading a trio with guitarist Bob Wilson and fiddler Tony Marcus.

In the late seventies, Baker recorded four more records for Kicking Mule, including two devoted to jazz and the first solo guitar record of Irish and Scottish music. He also began touring as a soloist, traveling throughout North America, Western Europe, and Australia. He eventually moved to Europe where he was based for nine years before returning to San Francisco in 1987.

It was also in the late seventies that Baker became associated with the free music scene, performing with musicians like Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn in New York and Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser in San Francisco. His associations in the 90’s included the highly regarded Irish fiddler, Kieran Fahy, and the great traditional singer, Molly Andrews. As of 2002 he is involved in several other duos: with trombone master Roswell Rudd, bassist Mark Dresser, and guitarists Jamie Findlay, Woody Mann and Ken Emerson. He also leads a trio which includes violinist Carla Kihlstedt and clarinetists Ben Goldberg and Alex Ward.

Baker’s solo recordings since 1980 have for the most part focused on his own compositions, which reflect the influence of the great jazz pianist/composers like Monk, Nichols, Randy Weston, etc. His pieces have been recorded by various other guitarists, as well as Irish and American traditionalists and modern jazzmen. His most ambitious record, “Spinning Song”, which is devoted to the music of Herbie Nichols, got rave reviews in Jazz Times, Cadence, Coda, and the New York Times, and helped establish Baker as an important voice in the world of fingerstyle jazz guitar. Various critics named “Spinning Song” among the best jazz records of 1997 in Cadence and Coda magazines, and it placed high on the Cadence reader’s poll of that year. Acoustic Guitar magazine dubbed it “one of the best guitar records ever recorded – by anybody.”

Which was the first and the last records you bought with your own money?

I’m not sure what were the first records that I bought. My older sister had records that I listened to when I was young, I remember I really loved Ray Charles, the old Atlantic records, but it may be that the first record I bought myself was The Coasters Greatest Hits. The Beatles came out when I was about 14 and at that point I was buying all their records, the Stones, The Kinks, etc. As for the last records I bought with my own money, I tend to trade CDs and records rather than to buy, and apart from that I tend to buy them as often as not in charity shops. I did pick up a Thad Jones - Mel Lewis two-record set on Blue Note, and a five-CD box set of early music by the Martin Best Medieval Consort not too long ago, and today I scored an old Irish LP by the legendary Tulla Ceili Band for 50 pence!

What do you recall about your guitar learning process?

My dad gave me a ukelele for my 14th birthday, and then I got a guitar that Christmas. I learned out of books, pretty much completely, as a beginner. About six months later, some friends wanted to start a rock ’n’ roll band, so I had to get an electric guitar. I must have paid for that with my paper route money! So somehow I became the lead guitarist, trying to play the things on those records by The Animals, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or even Chuck Berry. Since I was like 14, 15, and had been playing about a year, you can imagine how badly I played these things, but fortunately, there are no recordings!

Then, at some point, I became interested in fingerpicking, and taught myself how to play the sort of folkie patterns that were popular in those days, that people like Peter, Paul and Mary or the Kingston Trio were doing. So then, I was hanging around at coffee houses, and started meeting older kids and learning from them, about blues, jug band music, and even ragtime, things like that. And still playing in electric bands, though by that time we were trying to play electric blues. I started listening to jazz when I was 16 or 17, but I didn’t understand how it worked. When I discovered free jazz, that was something I could start teaching myself by ear.

What gear do you use?

My main instrument is a flamenco guitar, made by Antonio Raya Pardo, that I have owned for about 35 years. I also use a Fylde guitar, their Gordon Giltrap model. But gear is not really my thing.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by?

Am I surprised by? I was surprised by how well received “Spinning Song”, the record of Herbie Nichols’ music that I did, was received. But I suppose the record that continues to surprise me would be “The Salutation”, which is a record of traditional Christmas carols and music, that I put together in the 1980s after working very hard on it for several years. Not the typical Christmas program, but unusual, older things, for the most part. It surprises me, because when I hear it, I actually enjoy it; I feel like I’m managed to do what I set out to do, for once. Most of the time, I don’t enjoy hearing my recordings.

What's the importance of technique in music, in your opinion?

Technique is technique. It enables us to express ourselves with our instruments. How much traditional or standard technique one needs is very much dependent on what kind of music one wants to play. If you want to play the guitar with a nail file or a balloon or an egg whisk or anything else, you might want to actually practice techniques for doing that, or, then again, you might not. It can actually be a very complex question, but basically it depends on what kind of music we are talking about.

What quality do you admire most in a musician?


What’s the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?

Well, the player is certainly more important than the instrument, but you don’t want to have to use an instrument that really is difficult to play to the point that it’s distracting.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?

I miss not being able to think of recordings as albums, as projects there are wholes unto themselves, as was the case in the LP and CD eras. But I very much like being able to record at home with my own computer, and notate music with a program.

Where are your roots? What are your influences?

As must be true for most everyone, my roots and influences are primarily the sounds I heard when I was growing up. And I think this will hold truer in my case than it might for someone who went on to do some sort of formal musical education, which I never did. An awful lot of my professional experience has been with various kinds of folk and vernacular music, and an awful lot of that does relate to the sounds that I would have heard as a child growing up in the south in the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

My own background is fairly middle class, but there was some music in the house, like my mother playing piano from, like, the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, and my Dad occasionally playing a little bit of ukelele and even harmonica, when I was a child. None of this was earthshaking, but at least did seem normal to me to play a musical instrument.

It’s funny, because people act like there was nothing on the radio before rock ’n’ roll, but I do remember hearing some pretty cool stuff on the radio when I was very small, stuff like big band music or Louis Jordan, or Hank Williams, all kinds of things really. But as I said earlier it was getting into the sounds of people like Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, Lee Dorsey, The Coasters, etc. - that was what excited me when I was starting to play. When I started to get serious about fingerpicking the guitar, I started hanging around with older kids at local coffeehouses. 

The one who influenced me the most was named Buck Evans, who was a ragtime piano player, at a time when no one really knew ragtime, like about 1965. (Ragtime didn’t get “revived” until about 1971, with Joshua Rifkin’s first record for Nonesuch, and most revivalists take an overly classical approach to that music to this day.) So Buck turned me on to ragtime and early jazz, and sort of helped me understand that, for instance, I didn’t have the kind of voice to sing the blues like I was trying to do at that point. He told me I sounded better when I was trying to sing Doc Watson songs, and when I said, but I want to sing blues, Buck just said, well, it’s all the same music. This, at the time, was a real revelation to me - that all American vernacular music was really one kind of music. We encounter that idea much more often now, at least regarding the styles we would call traditional folk, but in my case I took it further than I think most people do. For me, I hear the same swing, and the same cry, in everything from Appalachian mountain music to free jazz. I hear Roscoe Holcomb and Ornette Coleman as playing the same music. Skip James and Cecil Taylor, the same thing, to me. I approach American music the same way someone like Julian Bream approaches European classical music.

I should also say that I felt very strongly, as a teenager just beginning to learn about these different forms of American music, that I would have to really apply myself if I wanted to aspire to something better than the kind of teenybop rock ’n’ roll music that most of the kids I knew gravitated towards, the Beach Boys and all that kind of thing, and then the psychedelic bands. It all sounded pretty plastic to me, and I felt that I had to get away from the limitations of my white, middle-class roots not to sound plastic myself. I felt the need to push myself in every direction, like learning to play bluegrass, like learning to play in swing bands, like learning to play free jazz, just to be able to do something worth doing. Whether I ever managed that, I leave for others to say.

What do you think about teaching? Do you remember specially any of your teachers?

I love teaching myself, but I didn’t have guitar teachers when I was learning. I did learn lots of things from other kids and friends when I was young, and mostly I learn to play by playing in bands, first rock and blues bands, then acoustic groups, playing bluegrass, western swing, swing jazz, free jazz, whatever. And I remember specific things I learned on bandstands from older musicians. Like there was a swing jam session in a little restaurant I used to play on Market Street in San Francisco, in the 1970s. A woman who was sitting in on keyboards was chatting to me between tunes, telling me about sessions she had played in Boston, with very heavy players, like Paul Bley, Herb Pomeroy, people like that. She told me how they had pointed out some things to her, like when a soloist goes in the higher register, the accompanist should go low, and vice versa, things like that.

And I said “wow,” and then realised she was telling me this for a reason. I looked at her and she looked back just long enough to know I had gotten the message. I can’t tell you how many bandstands I have been on since that day, wishing that everyone else had played with someone who taught them what that woman taught me that day, and I can’t even remember her name! But playing with people, that really is something you learn by playing with people.

What do you need from music?

Would it sound corny to say that what I need is to do what music needs me to do?

Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.

If you mean a work of mine, it would be Spinning Song, without a doubt. When John Zorn asked me to do that project, I thought it sounded like an interesting and very challenging idea, because I thought it was strange the way jazz musicians ignored Herbie Nichols’ music. So, I got hold of some charts from various people, and I found out in fairly short order why these musicians were ignoring it! That work really was my advanced education for playing more harmonically sophisticated modern jazz. And it put me in direct touch with Roswell Rudd, and that was a whole other education, when I began working with him. If the question was about something I heard, I’ll pick the version of “Light Blue” on the Thelonious Monk Columbia record called Misterioso. That was the first Monk record I got hold of, and I knew as soon as I heard that that some day I had to understand how to operate in that world, at least to some extent. But, if you mean something that provoked an immediate change in my playing, it would have been the first time I heard Sonny Sharrock, which was on Pharoah Sander’s Tauhid LP.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

One specific project that is on the way is a new CD for The Mighty Quinn label that will consist mostly of live recordings from recent years. This will feature different kinds of blues/jazz material, in various duo, trio and solo settings. There will be things like duos with Roswell Rudd, and with Michael Moore, the multi-reed guy, and in trios, like with Ben Goldberg and Carla Kihlstedt. My health is poor, and unless it improves, I am not sure how much touring and performing I will be able to do in the future.

But I do at least hope to keep working as a soloist, and to play with my trio with Alex Ward on clarinet, and John Edwards on bass, and my quartet which also includes Steve Noble on drums. I have a ton of new material, both for solo guitar, and for both of these groups, and I only hope to be able to get recordings of it done in the coming years. The stuff with the trio tends to be modern jazz, maybe influenced by Nichols and Monk, and the stuff with the quartet is a bit freer then that, going from free jazz towards free improv. I do also want to do some other free improv gigs in London, I have been talking with John Butcher and Steve Beresford about doing some things together. With improv, at least you don’t have to spend months and years rehearsing to get to the material to sound good! I do think that working with challenging scores helps me as an improviser, even when I’m playing free, but sometimes it’s great just to get together with other people with big ears and big imaginations and just let it happen.

Selected Discography


There’s Something for Everyone in America


Kicking Mule Records


When You Wore a TulipKicking Mule Records1977

The King of Bongo Bong

Kicking Mule Records

The Art of Fingerstyle Jazz GuitarKicking Mule Records1979
The Kid on the MountainKicking Mule Records1980
Under Your HeartEdition Collage Records1985
You Can’t Take the Country out of the BoyEdition Collage Records1986
Both SidesS. Grossman’s Guitar Workshop1987
A Thousand WordsAcoustic Music Records1992

Opening the Eyes of Love

Shanachie Records

The Art of Fingerstyle Jazz GuitarShanachie Records (re-issue)1994
The Clear Blue SkyAcoustic Music Records1995
Spinning SongAvant Records1996
Ms. RightAcoustic Music Records1998

The Kid on the Mountain

Fantasy Records (re-issue)

My Heart Belongs to JennyDay Job Records2000
The Salutation(re-issue)2006
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New OrleansDay Job Records2006
The Roots and Branches of American MusicLes Cousins2009

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Mighty Quinn



Paul Bunyan (with Leo Kottke)Windham Hill 1990
American Traditional (with Molly Andrews)Day Job Records1993
The Moving Business (with Molly Andrews)Day Job Records1994
Northern Skies, Southern BluesShanachie Records1997
The Fairy Queen (with Kieran Fahy)Day Job Records1999
Out of the Past (with Jamie Findlay)Day Job Records2001
The Expatriate GameDay Job Records2005

The Waltz Lesson (Duck Baker Trio)

Les Cousins

The Ducks Palace (Duos and Trios)Incus Records2009
Amnesia In Trastevere (Duck Baker Trio)Les Cousins

When You Ask a Girl To Leave Her Happy Home
(Duck Baker / Dakota Dave Hull)





Masters of Ragtime GuitarKicking Mule Records1977
Advanced Fingerpicking Guitar TechniquesKicking Mule Records1978
Contemporary Guitar WorkshopKicking Mule Records1978

Irish Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes and Airs
Kicking Mule Records1979
Blues Guitar WorkshopKicking Mule Records1979
Northwestern Folklife FestivalVoyager Records1979
Second Lizard ConventionLizard Records1983

Music of O’Carolan

Shanachie Records

Music of IrelandShanachie Records1988
Irish Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes and Airs
(tracks from The Kid on the Mountain and Irish Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes and Airs on Kicking Mule)
Shanachie Records (re-issue)1993

The Entertainer:
Music of Scott Joplin for Fingerstyle Guitar
(tracks from various Kicking Mule records)

Shanachie Records (re-issue)

Fingerpicking Delights
(tracks from various Kicking Mule records)
Shanachie Records (re-issue)1994
Acoustic RoutesDemon Records1993

Ramble to Cashel, Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Vol. 1

Rounder Records

The Blarney Pilgrim, Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Vol. 2Rounder Records1998
Studio For Experimental Art Sampler Vol. OneStudio For1998
156 StringsCuneiform2002
Acoustic Guitar Highlights Vol.1Acoustic Music Records
Donna LombardaBarcode records2010



Stefan Grossman: Thunder on the RunKicking Mule Records1980
John James: Descriptive Guitar InstrumentalsKicking Mule Records1976
Eugene Chadbourne: Guitar TriosParachute Records1977
Dale Miller: Wild Over MeRio Vista Records1982
Kieran Fahy: Midnight On the WaterARC Music1994
Kieran Fahy: The Woman From TuamARC Music1997
Eugene Chadbourne: Wild PartnersHouse of Chadponk1998
Tokio Uchida: Tokio Acoustic BluesTab Guitar School
Roswell Rudd: Broad StrokesKnitting Factory2000


Feeling Good, Feeling Proudproduced by Richard Heus1980
Paul Bunyan (with Leo Kottke)Rabbit Ears Productions1988
Hostel (made as part of The Big Night)1990
Acoustic Routes (with other artists)Red Herring production1992


Fingerstyle Guitar: New Dimensions and Explorations, Volume Two


The Art of Fingerstyle Guitar

Acoustic RoutesRed Herring
The World of Celtic Guitar,Vol. 1,Ramble to CashelVestapol
The World of Celtic Guitar,Vol. 2,The Blarney PilgrimVestapol
The World of Fingerstyle Jazz GuitarVestapol


Irish, Scottish, English and American Fiddle Tunes for the Fingerpicking GuitaristCenterstream Publications
Classic American Folk Blues ThemesMel Bay Publications
The Complete Gospel GuitaristMel Bay Publications
The SalutationMel Bay Publications
Encyclopedia of Irish and American Fiddle Tunes for Fingerstyle GuitarMel Bay Publications

A Thousand Words

Acoustic Music Records
The Clear Blue SkyAcoustic Music Records
Opening the Eyes of LoveAcoustic Music Records
Ms. RightAcoustic Music Records
The Fingerstyle Jazz Compositions of Duck BakerAcoustic Music Recordsdistributed by Mel Bay Publications


Classic American Folk Blues Themes

Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Music of O’CarolanStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Celtic Reels, Jigs, and AirsStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Fingerstyle Jazz: Swing to BopStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop

Fingerstyle Jazz: Bop to Modern

Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Fingerstyle Jazz: ImprovisationStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Guitar AerobicsStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop

The Music of Thelonious Monk

Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop

Introduction to Fingerstyle Swing Guitar

Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Introduction to Gospel FingerstyleStefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
Guitar WorkshopAcoustic Music Records
The Guitar of Duck BakerAcoustic Music Records


Irish Jigs & AirsGuitar Workshop
Irish Hornpipes, Slipjigs & ReelsGuitar Workshop
Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes Vol. 1Guitar Workshop
Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes Vol. 2Guitar Workshop
Classic Ragtime GuitarGuitar Workshop
Celtic MelodiesGuitar Workshop
Ramble To Cashel: Celtic Fingertyle Guitar Vol. 1Guitar Workshop
The Blarney Pilgrim: Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Vol. 2Guitar Workshop