The music of the late NEA Jazz Master and world-lauded jazz educator David Baker is featured on Basically Baker 2, a new recording out September 23 on Patois Records. The two-CD set showcases the renowned Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra in Baker's own big band arrangements of his music. Proceeds generated by sales of the recording will go to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to benefit students of the Jacobs School of Music Jazz Studies Program.
Basically Baker 2 employs former Baker students and proteges such as trombonist Brent Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie in music previously heard almost exclusively at Indiana University concert performances. Another IU alum, trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, provides a lovely cameo appearance for "Kirsten's First Song," as does IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker, whose easy, elegant swing evokes 21st-century echoes of Baker's good friend Wes Montgomery. Saxophonist Rich Perry of Maria Schneider's award-winning orchestra checks in for solos as well playing on the lyrical "Soft Summer Rain," "Sweet Georgia Peach" (Baker's abstract take on "Sweet Georgia Brown"), and "Shima 13." Trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace also steps up with a bold contribution to one of Baker's most significant compositions, "Honesty."
The Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, with Baker's blessing, first ventured into the realm of his large ensemble compositions with 2007's Basically Baker. That recording landed on DownBeat's top-100 list of jazz CDs for the 21st century, and is now being reissued by Patois Records in conjunction with Basically Baker 2.
The idea of Basically Baker 2 had been in the works for some time, but the project gained poignance and momentum after Baker passed away this March at the age of 84. "David and Lida approached me in 2005 to record the first volume, which was a great experience for everyone involved," says Wallarab. "Since then, we talked a number of times about doing a second volume and especially in recent years, he mentioned it frequently. It was important to David that his music 'live on' as he would say and not languish away in the library at the music school. This project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David's wishes to care for his music after he was gone."
The passion and skill of Baker's musical progeny was matched by their dedication and desire to be a part of Basically Baker 2. "I was amazed by the overwhelming commitment and enthusiasm of everyone I asked," says Wallarab. "Many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate."
Basically Baker 2 extends the far-reaching impact of Baker's life and accomplishments. When he was born David Nathaniel Baker in Indianapolis, Indiana on December 21, 1931, the United States was a racially segregated country, either by law or socially enforced custom, and jazz was a young and controversial form of music. By the time of his departure on March 26, 2016, an African-American was serving as the country's president, and jazz education programs were thriving at various institutions across the land. Jazz and America had gone through some changes, and Baker made a major contribution, as a jazz education pioneer, a master trombonist and cellist, a prolific composer, a builder of cultural bridges, and an innovator who used the past in service of the future. George Russell, the jazz composer and theorist who helped shape David's late-1950s Indianapolis hardbop group into one of the most progressive ensembles of the early 1960s, coined an appropriate term for David's compositions, calling them "21st century soul music."
During Baker's formative years in the 1930s and 40s, he listened to the great big band orchestras of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and numerous others, as well as gospel, blues, pop, classical, and country music. By the late 1940s the bebop revolution had taken hold, and Baker was an enthusiastic convert, sneaking into the clubs along Indianapolis' Indiana Avenue with his teenage friends to hear the exciting new sounds being propagated by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other musical torchbearers of the times.
Throughout the 1950s Baker continued his studies, worked with orchestras of Fred Dale, Stan Kenton, and Maynard Ferguson, and taught in classrooms and privately. By the end of the decade he was leading a hard-charging big band at Indiana University, touring with Quincy Jones' orchestra, and being praised in print by Gunther Schuller. In 1966 he took over Indiana University's fledgling jazz studies program and spent close to 50 years there, building the foundation of the modern jazz education movement and codifying the lingua franca of 20th-century jazz for generations to come through his teaching, writings, performances, and recordings.
Significantly, much of the material on Basically Baker 2 comes from Baker's first decade at Indiana University as head of jazz studies, stretching from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. "I think he was a little more daring as a writer then," says Brent Wallarab. In addition to being a fascinating era for big band music, these were also the years when jazz made its first bold advances into the academy, and in Baker the music found one of its most effective ambassadors. The connections Baker forged in Indiana University's world-renowned classical music program, and his own extensive work in the field of classical composition, played a vital role in jazz's late-20th century cultural elevation, as did his leadership of the repertory-oriented Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
Baker never ventured too far afield from the primary colors of his musical palette, though: blues, popular song, and bebop. It's fitting that the sole non-Baker composition on this CD is Baker's arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop," suggested by Gillespie himself, who encouraged Baker to apply his own masterly touch to the composition's bright, frantic, swirl-and-dash contours. There are other salutes as well, to longtime friend Tillman Buggs ("Terrible T"), and grandchild Kirsten ("Kirsten's First Song," which ends with a celeste solo that Wallarab says "is like a little kiss on his granddaughter's forehead before he tucks her away for the night"). "Black Thursday" summons the sound and spirit of Baker's Indianapolis hardbop era in memory of the friends and loved ones who passed on that particular day of the week. "Shima 13" invokes Baker's love of puns and wordplay in honor of his sister Shirley, and "25th and Martindale" namechecks the Indianapolis neighborhood where Baker spent much of his youth, attending church, working as a caddy at a nearby golf course, and honing his skills as a musician. "Harlem Pipes," which began as a small group piece and morphed into a big band arrangement, is dedicated to Baker's friend and cohort, pianist Marian McPartland.
"David's legacy as educator, author, and classical composer is well documented through many publications, recordings, and through thousands of his academic progeny continuing his pedagogy in schools worldwide," says Wallarab. "As a composer for jazz big band, David has an important and distinct voice that most of the jazz world does not yet know. It is truly an honor to be involved in presenting his music to the global jazz community."
Basically Baker 2 extends its predecessor's contribution to the modern jazz canon and furthers the mission and legacy of David Baker's life in music: to create, to swing, and to teach. At the same time, it offers a deeper portrait of an artist whose place in jazz history is destined to grow ever more significant with the passing of years, and whose music is filled with nuance, humor, melodicism, and the blues-at once earthy and sophisticated. It is a celebration of a remarkable individual's vision of jazz, expanding that vision's recorded element, just as Baker himself, through his composing, performing, and educational efforts, expanded the consciousness of jazz around the countries and cultures of the world.
The Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, founded by Mark Buselli and Brent Wallarab in 1994, includes many of the top jazz artists in the Midwest. The group has given over 1,000 public performances, played every Tuesday night over a 12 year tenure at The Jazz Kitchen, recorded seven CDs, and given hundreds of jazz education presentations in dozens of schools.