A Who’s Who of local guitar-playing royalty were gathered at a residence in St. Paul Sunday night to hear one of the world’s premier fingerstyle guitarists, Duck Baker, tell stories and play some dazzling music. Pat Donohue, Phil Heywood, and Tim Sparks—all National Fingerpicking Guitar Champion titleholders—were there, as was the paterfamilias of local folk, blues, and traditional guitar, Dakota Dave Hull, along with 20 or so other invitees.
The occasion was a so-called “house concert,” an increasingly popular type of event in which a professional musician is invited to perform in the relative intimacy of someone’s living room. Each invitee pays $15-20, say, and in exchange they get to hear a musician play in almost ideal circumstances. Instead of sitting 60 or 100 feet away, you listen from six or ten feet away, among a group of fellow enthusiasts who share your taste in music and appetite for novelty.
The musician they all came to hear, Duck Baker, has been in town for the past week recording with Dakota Dave Hull for an upcoming CD. Decades ago Baker lived in Minneapolis, but he currently resides in London and rarely makes it to the U.S. anymore, so opportunities to see him play are rare. If you ever get the chance to witness firsthand what he can do with a six-string guitar, grab it. Baker is a guitar-player’s guitarist—the sort of person other guitarists study to figure out the secrets behind his musical magic. His sound, technique, and musical intelligence are all extraordinary, and his style is as unmistakable as it is unique.
To begin with, though he does play a steel-string guitar now and then, Baker prefers to play a nylon-string classical guitar. But he doesn’t play it like a classical guitarist; he pops and slaps the strings, wraps his thumb around the guitar neck like he’s strangling a chicken, executes devilish chord formations at speeds that would impress the devil himself, and generally wrestles the guitar into submitting to his musical will. This includes wizardly flights of improvisational fancy, in which Baker typically closes his eyes and heads up into a stratosphere so high that most musicians don’t even know it exists. Hence, the respect and admiration he gets from the likes of Hull, Donohue, and Sparks, et al.
House concerts allow for a lot of friendly chatter between the performer and audience—which in Baker’s case meant we got a lot of interesting history along with the music. Baker can play anything, but he specializes in Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes, traditional folk and gospel songs, and jazz, particularly early 20th-century pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dollar Brand, Fats Waller, and any number of others. In fact, Baker is pretty much the world’s leading authority on arranging stride and swing piano tunes for guitar, and the sophistication and artistry of those arrangements are part of why those in the know have so much respect for him. Think about how you might play something composed for the piano on a guitar and the challenges are immediately obvious: you have figure out how to play the bass lines, chords, and melody all at the same time, on a fingerboard that isn’t linear, like a keyboard, and that requires two fingers—one fretting, the other plucking—to get a single note.
Duck Baker arrangements sound like he has about six hands, though, so he’s clearly found some decent workarounds. On Sunday, he played a wide range of tunes, from traditional Irish and American fiddle tunes to several numbers by Thelonious Monk and Dollar Brand, and an assortment of waltzes, reels, planxties, and gospel tunes from his vast bag of tricks. To cap the evening off, Baker and Dakota Dave performed a medley of traditional bluegrass tunes together, showcasing the sort of ingenious arrangements the pair have been working on in the studio, and which will eventually end up on the aforementioned CD they’re recording.
Baker and Hull only got to record about half the tunes on that CD this time around before Baker had to head back to London. Plans are in the works to get him back here in June to finish the project, and possibly play a few more house concerts. If you get invited to one, go. Because how often to you get to sit in someone’s living room and hear a master musician play? Just to whet your appetite, here’s a clip of Duck Baker in action, playing "Sweet Georgia Brown":