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Friday, June 25, 2021

Duck Baker - Confabulations (ESP Disc, 2021) *****

By Paul Acquaro

Fingerstyle guitarist Duck Baker with Derek Bailey, Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Mark Dresser, John Edwards, Michael Moore, Steve Noble, Roswell Rudd, Alex Ward, and Joe Williamson. 

Yes, let that list sink in for a bit. This latest offering from Baker, a master musician across so many idioms, is so many things at once. The releases is a series of duo (and a trio and a quartet) recordings from 2002 to 2017, and a document of Baker's ability to adapt to many free and formidable styles. Baker has, of course, worked out Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols works for solo guitar (link) and Emanem released a compilation a few years back, Outside, that collected Baker's free jazz solo work from between 1977 to 1983, so Confabulations is exciting addition to the avant-garde side of Baker's discography.
The opening track 'Imp Romp 2' is a free-ranging collaboration with saxophonist Michael Moore that also reveals a very free side of Moore, which is delightfully matched by Baker. It begins with an unwinding and free melody from the guitar to which Moore latches onto in his controlled tone. Halfway through, the two dissolve into exploratory territory where rough sounds replace their more deliberate playing. Guttural and scratchy, the sounds are nearly unforgiving at moments, but resolve towards the track's end. The next track is one of two collaborations with bassist Mark Dresser, 'Shenandoah' contains elements of the beloved folk song, expressed through high harmonics on the bass and gentle partial chords from Baker. They extrude so much from the song that you can almost see bar lines on a score with holes where the notes originated, however, there is still a tenderness behind this abstract reading. Track three is 'Indie Pen Dance,' a duet with archetype of solo avant-garde guitar, Derek Bailey himself. Recorded in 2002, you know who are hearing the moment the track begins. Scratchily, fizzily, plink for plonk, the two engage in a complex, co-created choreography. 'East River Delta Blues' features trombonist Roswell Rudd in a rich exploration whose connection to the blues seems far removed from the form, but present in the wisps of melody. 'Duo for 225 strings' finds Steve Beresford on piano and like in the other duets, Baker deftly adapts to the terse interplay that happens inside and outside of the piano. 'The Missing Chandler' pairs up Baker with saxophonist John Butcher for a captivating performance that rewards the patient listener handsomely.  Butcher employs his highly personal approach, starting out reservedly with movements of air slowly turning into audible notes while Baker teases out gentle notes. As the track continues, the two pour more and more of themselves into it without ever overshadowing each other.

The two tracks beyond the duo format, one a trio with clarinetist and guitarist Alex Ward (a frequent collaborator) and bassist Joe Williamson, and the other a quartet again with Ward, bassist John Edwards, and drummer Steve Noble, again broadens the musical palette. 'Ode to Jo,' with the trio, begins with a reference to Beethoven's classic, and in a more traditional swing-jazz style. Ward's solo is melodic and flowing, however Baker's solo takes its own free path, referencing the famous melody after a bricolage of deliberately jazzy 'licks'. The quartet's 'Tourbillion Air' begins quietly with everyone involved contributing their own legato ideas, building in tension until breaking free.

Confabulations is a wonderful collection that reveals the power of the acoustic - and possibly lightly amplified electric(?) - guitar. Highly recommended!