Richard Royall “Duck” Baker IV (solo guitar) – Duck Baker Plays Monk  – Triple Point 

by | Apr 2, 2018 | Jazz CD Reviews

Monk on acoustic guitar is marvelous!

Richard Royall “Duck” Baker IV (solo guitar) – Duck Baker Plays Monk [TrackList follows] – Triple Point TPR 271 (LP), 46:15 [3/23/18] ****:

It’s been 36 years since Thelonious Monk passed away. His music and compositions continue to influence and inspire. Case in point is American fingerstyle guitarist Richard Royall “Duck” Baker IV’s new recording, the 46-minute Duck Baker Plays Monk. Throughout this album—available only as an LP—Baker explores the intricacies of nine Monk tunes. Baker has been around since the early 1970s. He’s performed jazz, blues, gospel, ragtime, folk, and Irish and Scottish music. He has over 30 albums to his credit and has been featured on numerous guitar anthologies. He has also written many guitar instruction books. Artists he has collaborated with include Tommy Emmanuel.

Duck wanted to do a collection of solo acoustic guitar arrangements of Monk compositions about the time he did Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols (1996). Baker has performed Monk’s music at various gigs for decades. For a long time, Duck could not find a label which was interested. He taped seven Monk pieces in 2010. But it was another five years before a label stepped in to help release Baker’s work and thus Baker taped two more tracks in 2015. The result is this fine tribute to Monk’s legacy.

A lot of effort went into transposing Monk’s piano-based music to guitar. Baker had to figure out tempos, melodies, phrasing and voicings—and not lose the personality of each tune. Nuances and exposition were both important. The transfer from piano to guitar is individualistic and beautifully interpretative. Baker starts with “Blue Monk.” He provides a trace of Delta blues via his deep-toned fingerstyling. The introduction has an open approach. And then Baker builds on the 12-bar arrangement. “Off Minor” has a ringing mannerism and supplies some fresh multipart lines which are a wonder to hear. The harmonics during “Off Minor” showcase Monk’s sophistication as well as Baker’s ability to push his playing beyond the limitations of just six strings. The LP’s side one concludes with a seven-minute translation of “Bemsha Swing” and 5:38 version of “Round Midnight.” There’s a joyful vivacity to “Bemsha Swing.” The way Baker blends bass notes with the higher melody lines is an idyllic experience. Baker imparts a relaxed mastery to “Round Midnight.” His sure touch and finger placement support an almost poignant characteristic. The harmonics and overtones are also marvelous.

Duck Baker
photo by Peter Gannushkin

Like side one, side two commences begins with a blues feeling. Baker furnishes an improvised introduction to “Light Blue”, and then begins a complex balance of involved harmonies and changing tempo which aids to make the six-minute “Light Blue” an inventive statement. Other highlights of side two include Monk’s classics “Straight, No Chaser,” “In Walked Bud” and “Misterioso.” Baker also redoes the loose, disjointed “Jackie-ing,” which was named after one of Monk’s nieces. “Straight, No Chaser” manages to utilize Monk’s famed chromatic effect, no small feat on acoustic guitar. Baker delivers a swinging rendition which nevertheless has erudite tonal coloring, knotty plucking and some Country music-styled twang. Baker’s rendering of “In Walked Bud” (an homage to Monk’s friend and fellow jazz pianist Bud Powell) is magnificent. Trombonist Roswell Rudd—who often re-did Monk’s music—points out in the album’s liner notes that “In Walked Bud” is liberally based on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Improvisers love to delve into this kind of gorgeous lyricism. And certainly, Baker gives it his all. He solos on the choruses. He somehow refashions a horn solo on guitar without making it sound like a horn. And quotes from “Ol’ Man River.” Quite an accomplishment. Baker’s record closes with another 12-bar blues, the universally recognized “Misterioso.” Baker imaginatively restructures this Monk cut, and goes from an organically light intro eventually into a more intense movement, so that the four-minute track shifts from seeming simplicity (it’s not simple) to a marked dynamism. Overall, Duck Baker Plays Monk merits more notice than the relatively low-key distribution of this high-quality LP got. Fans of fingerstyle guitar and/or Monk should search for this. The LP’s packaging and design are also worth mention. There is a two-sided 12 x 12-inch printed insert with insightful and informative liner notes penned by Rudd six months before he passed away. Baker’s reflections on Monk are on the opposite side of the printed insert.

Blue Monk
Off Minor
Bemsha Swing
Round Midnight
Light Blue
Straight, No Chaser
In Walked Bud

—Doug Simpson

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