Baker’s Final Testament: The Art of Jazz Solos

baker-vol-2

BASICALLY BAKER, Vol. 2 / BAKER: The Harlem Pipes. The Georgia Peach. Walt’s Barbershop. Soft Summer Rain. Black Thursday. Shima 13. Honesty. 25th & Martindale. Kirsten’s First Song. Terrible T. GILLESIE-PAPPILARDI: Bebop / Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra: Tony Kadleck, Randy Brecker, Scott Belck, Graham Breedlove, Jeff Conrad, Mark Buselli, Pat Harbison, tpt; Tim Coffman, Freddie Mendoza, Brennan Johns, tbn; Rich Dole, bs-tbn; Celeste Holler-Seraphinoff, horn; Luke Gillespie, pno; Mitch Shiner, vib; Monika Herzig, celeste; David Stryker, gtr; Dan Perantoni, tuba; Jeremy Allen, bs; Steve Houghton, dm / Patois Records (no number provided)

David Baker, who died in March of this year at age 84, was one of the real good guys in the jazz world: not just a performer (early on) and composer, but also an educator and enthusiast. He didn’t just teach others how to play jazz, but also how to love it. This 2-CD set, Basically Baker Vol. 2, is the follow-up to his 2007 album Basically Baker Vol. 1¸which Patois Records plans to reissue as a bookend to this new release.

Baker, a professor at Indiana University and founder of its Jazz Studies program, was a native Hoosier, born in Indianapolis and going to Crispus Attucks High School. He initially soaked up the swing culture of his youth—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, etc.—but once bebop came around in the late 1940s he was hooked. Baker often sneaked into clubs along Indiana Avenue because he was underage to soak up the music and the atmosphere. After coming to IU in 1966, Baker founded the University’s jazz program, where he mentored such musicians as Luke Gillespie, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Jim Beard, Chris Botti, Jeff Hamilton, and jazz education mogul Jamey Aebersold.

Although Baker played trombone on George Russell’s Ezz-thetics album—the last time he would do so due to a facial injury that impaired his ability to play (he later switched to the cello!)—he was never really into the modern jazz or free-form revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s. Trumpet student Luke Gillespie, visiting Baker’s office in 1978, saw a copy of the Miles Davis LP Kind of Blue on the turntable, a copy so worn and scratched that the grooves were almost worn white. Gillespie commented to Baker that he had “gotten a lot of mileage out of this record,” to which Baker replied, “Yeah, that’s my seventh copy.” And that’s where Baker’s musical adventurism ended, with the late-‘50s modal jazz of Miles Davis.

Thus listeners coming to this album, and this music, should not look for anything post-Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus in his style. Indeed, even the voicings of the orchestra are in the mold of 1950s and early-’60 bands like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. There are some features of interest in some of these compositions, such as the introductions to The Harlem Pipes and Walt’s Barbershop, the jazz fugue in the middle of the latter and the final chorus of The Georgia Peach. Baker was by no means a stodgy writer-arranger; he knew too much about music to be dull or routine; he just avoided the modern trends of his time.

But the real glory of this album is in the solos; they are the story, they tell the story, and they are meaty and consistently interesting. The promo material accompanying this release makes a fuss of the two big-name guest artists on this album, trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Stryker, but honestly all of the soloists are very, very good.

And this, perhaps, was Baker’s greatest achievement, in training soloists who listened hard to the music and could consistently play interesting and well-structured solos. Although I love a lot of the new jazz that’s out there (my reviews are proof enough of that, I think), my readers will have noticed that I occasionally chastise the soloists within these modern concepts of not really listening to each other or the surrounding framework, playing solos that are coherent. The constant push for novelty sometimes comes with its own price.

Moreover, the bigger name soloists do not overshadow the others, and that in itself is interesting. I was absolutely thrilled, in fact, by the playing of trumpeters Pat Harbison and Graham Breedlove, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and saxists Ned Boyd, Rob Dixon and Bill Sears, and I do not wish to slight the others. Mark Buselli’s plunger-muted trumpet solo on Black Thursday is one of the highlights of the album. I just wish, for my own personal pleasure, that the scores had been more modern and explorative, at least on the high level set by the late Clare Fischer, for instance, or Rod Levitt and, yes, George Russell.

Nevertheless, if you want a good, straightahead jazz album that is sure to give you pleasure from what the soloists are saying, Basically Baker Vol. 2 is for you. They are an object lesson on how to think within your framework and give your very best.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of jazz and classical music

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One thought on “Baker’s Final Testament: The Art of Jazz Solos

  1. Dear Editor — I’d like to send you a new jazz-meets-classical recording — DYAD PLAYS JAZZ ARIAS featuring Lou Caimano on alto sax, Eric Olsen on piano, and guests Randy Brecker on trumpet & flugelhorn and Ted Nash on tenor. It’s a gorgeous melding of jazz with opera. Please let me know if you’re interested and thanks so much!

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